First Man

Oct 10, 2018

Ride along with Ryan in a docudrama worthy of its subject's celebrated history.

First Man

Grade: A-

Director:  Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Screenplay: Josh Singer, from James R. Hansen book

Cast:  Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Claire Foy (Breathe)

Rating: PG -3

Runtime: 2hr 21 min

By: John DeSando

“You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!” Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy).

After Janet, wife of Neil (Ryan Gosling), in 1969 has been told by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) at Mission Control that they have everything under control for the moon landing project, Apollo 11, the audience has to agree with her that the control is dicey and probably rests mostly with the astronauts. As Janet implies, no one is completely in control, perhaps only fate is.

First Man is the story of the flying ‘60’s, from Neil ‘s X-15 ride in 1961 (“bouncing off the atmosphere,” as Mission Control says), to the Apollo 11 initiative as the crew prepares to land in 1969 on the moon.  Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) walk the walk.

Throughout, the film is as cool as President Kennedy seeing the obstacles merely a proving ground for the greatness of the US and mankind. It’s a powerfully immersive film placing audience in the seat with the star sailors, especially Armstrong, as they go through the various stages of space flight from the important Gemini Project in 1961 to Apollo 11 in 1969.

The Apollo 13 film about the aborted 1970 Apollo lunar mission and The Right stuff about the first manned space flight by the US are romantically right on and visually glorious. A different kind of success for First Man is director Damien Chazelle’s, who takes us into the cockpit in the air, and at Neil’s home, for what are reality shows as they ought to be.

The glamour is in the sealed capsules and the ingenuity of the astronauts, whose engineering skills are amply used in harrowing glitches. The reality is the possibility of failure and death families must live with each day.

The point of view is mostly Armstrong’s even when he’s not at the controls. Jane is unlike many other whimpering, complaining

wives in films where the men do the daring; like Armstrong, she’s cool, and especially when she exhorts him to explain to his sons that he might not return from the moon. She’s tough with the right stuff for a partner in what the film shows to be an icily daring and dangerous profession.

First Man is a story of history, adventure, sentiment, and humanity. It has it all, and while some may complain we don’t see the colorful earth and moon enough, Chazelle has shown what the astronauts saw, not what film makers would have liked them to see.

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

What Neil Armstrong supposedly said with his first step on the moon. Regardless of the “a” or not “a,” the act was “a giant leap for mankind.” First Man is an exciting piece of history writ large and realistically. Be prepared for quite a ride.

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time