Movies about astronauts are nothing new and our fascination with outer space has continued into the 21st century. Recent movies such as “Hidden Figures”, “Gravity”, “Moon” and the “Martian”, and predecessors including “Apollo 13”, “The Right Stuff”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Capricorn One”, have all earned a place in the cinematic celebration of the celestial realm.
In “First Man” (Universal/DreamWorks), we are given an intimate glimpse into the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), as well as NASA’s preparations to put a man on the moon. Armstrong’s personal story is as integral to “First Man” as anything having to do with NASA’s Space Program.
We first encounter Armstrong in an early 1960s flight test. The lengthy scene is equally jarring and claustrophobic and sets the tone for Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s technically stunning film. While fellow pilots might have been critical of Armstrong’s performance, he bounced off the atmosphere and still figure out how to get the craft home to the Mojave Desert.
At the same time Armstrong was enduring the rigors of his training, he was dealing with his young daughter Karen’s cancer and her subsequent death. It’s an undercurrent that runs throughout the film, impacting his personal relationships, including those with wife Janet (Claire Foy), and sons Rick (Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett).
Armstrong’s family and professional lives are given equal screen time in First Man, and each has its share of triumph and tragedy. Those old enough to remember are sure to recall the challenges faced by NASA, including Russians determined to beat the US in space every step of the way. Friendships between fellow astronauts and their wives provide dramatic, and even sometimes humorous, situations. The losses of lives, including the Apollo 1 catastrophe, are reminders of the multitude of risks involved.
When the Eagle, Apollo 11’s lunar module, finally lands on the moon in July 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) inside, it’s a powerfully rendered moment. Even with some creative liberties taken, “First Man” is one of the best movies of 2018, but it is not the best. Gosling is good, but Foy is fantastic and the one to watch come Oscar time.