First Man

This summer I heard that there would be a movie about the moon landing starring Ryan Gosling. That was all I needed to know. I had to go see it. And for a movie where you can’t expect surprises about the main story line — because it’s in every history book — it certainly did not disappoint. In fact, First Man is a phenomenal movie.

The opening scene immediately sets the tone. In a shaky, chaotic, sweaty and nervous test-flight we are introduced to Neil Armstrong, but also to the fact that mankind is already really pushing the limits of technology — which of course becomes a recurring theme. There are no great special effects in the scene but you do feel you are there with him in the cockpit and thus, through the wonder of film, other humans might get a chance to experience what that must have felt like (and even more so, of course, later on in the movie).

Even though this was just a test flight (many more would follow) we immediately get a sense to why and how Neil Armstrong would be picked to be the first man on the moon years later. He is able to keep it together in the most stressful situations. Which makes Ryan Gosling the right actor to play him. Gosling has the most perfect cool and collected demeanor of any actor out there right now. Or, if you’re on the other side of the Gosling appreciation spectrum, you would call him stoic and stiff. Either way, both work for this part.

There are many aspects to like about the movie, here’s a list:

  • The movie does an incredible job to underline that mankind was just BARELY able to pull off the moon landing. Technology was JUST about ready. It might be easy to forget, but this is how true innovation always works. They didn’t iterate until it was a sure and safe thing. They went, when they could. This is how mankind has always pushed forward, setting many small steps before barely being able to make a leap. And then we leap.
  • We are so used to giant sci-fi movies in space now, First Man is a terrifically refreshing movie about how insanely incredible going to the moon (our nearest planet!) actually is. And it isn’t even sci-fi.
  • The movie does not shy away from the critique that mounted around the Apollo space program as it progressed. Billions of taxpayer dollars were poured in and many lives were lost. This was of course not something everyone agreed on. Especially at a time where so much was going on already (civil rights movement, Vietnam war, Cold war etc.). I like that the movie also shows this, this way I learned about Whitey on the Moon. At one point actual footage of Kurt Vonnegut is shown, criticizing the space program (can’t find it on YouTube). This is where the movie sort of breaks a wall between a documentary and a movie. And it works.
  • The blind ambition, fueled by the Cold War, to go to the moon and show the world who’s boss also has a place in the movie. It’s not just the inspiring speech of Kennedy (“We choose to go to the moon.”). There were and are always also more (banal?) reasons.
  • The use of sound in the movie is amazing. Or, rather the lack of sound (anti-sound?), especially around the landing scene. I just love, love that part. I never heard a movie theater more quiet during this scene.
  • The movie is based on the biography of Neil Armstrong and most focus is on him and his wife, so you could call it a biopic, but that clearly wouldn’t do the movie justice . It’s a much more broad movie about, of course, the Apollo space program but even more so about ordinary people in general, achieving extraordinary things.
  • It is a movie, so parts are fictionalized, we will never know who Neil Armstrong really was and what he must have experienced. But I, usually not one for dramas, really liked how the movie interwove the technological progress and sacrifices with the progress and sacrifices it took on family life. The people and their lives are portrayed in a unassuming, very true to life manner, which adds to the notion that it were really just people that went to the moon. People with families, children, friends, happiness but also losses and pain.
  • What do you say when you’re the first man on the moon. We all know the famous line. But here’s another one, what do you say to your wife when you get back from the moon? The way the movie plays out, this part becomes almost just as important. And I like how the director used anti-sound to portray this.
  • I left the theater thinking the moon landing was really peak mankind. I have a hard time imagining something more daring, bold, inspiring and successful. This is not a new thought, every since I visited Kennedy Space Center in 2009 on my honeymoon I’ve been thinking about this. And even if you don’t have the chance to visit KSC, this movie will imprint that same sense.

I calculated Neil Armstrong was about exactly my age when he walked on the moon (minus 12 days), maybe that’s why I felt I could relate. Or maybe it’s all of the above reasons. Either way: this movie is now on my favorites list. And it wasn’t until I saw the credits that I figured out who the director was (yes, really, crazy but true!). But as stated in the first line of this blog I just need to know a few things, and after that; I like to be surprised by movies. All the googling comes after. So the critique surrounding the movie at the moment, I am oblivious to it. Also, that’s not what I want this blog to be about. I just saw a phenomenal movie about the greatest endeavor mankind ever accomplished. Go see it.


Originally published at Jan van den Berg.