First Man: Revealing the Struggles of Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11


Daniel McFadden/Universal Studios

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) boards the Apollo 11 for takeoff.

Max Eguizabal and Dustin Laufenberg

President John F. Kennedy famously said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, perfectly illustrates the challenges and triumph that comes with a journey to space.

Damien Chazelle is a two-time best picture nominated director for his films La La Land and Whiplash. In First Man, staring Ryan Gosling, he takes a huge departure from his earlier works. Rather than focusing on drumming or Hollywood, Chazelle takes a more historical and character-drive turn.

Neil Armstrong is battered and beaten. He not only withstands the stresses of training and the anxiety of not coming home, but also the death of his friends. Most harrowing of all, however, is the passing of his daughter.

Brilliantly detailing the trauma of the astronaut, First Man presents a much more personal side of the Armstrong’s story, portraying both the before and after of going to space.

The movie shines the spotlight on aspects of the space race that most fail to consider—namely, the sacrifices of the astronauts making the journey.

It also allows the audience to relive the time period. Because the landing was over fifty years ago, even those who were alive may not remember their lifestyles at the time. Little details in the movie, such as a TV in the background showing broadcasts about the Vietnam War and civil rights protests give viewers a look into the culture of the decade.

Giving a spotless performance of Armstrong’s struggles, Ryan Gosling adds to his list of master roles – he had already proved his chops in Blade Runner 2049, Nice Guys, and previous Damien Chazelle film La La Land.

A different character than Gosling’s past roles, Armstrong in First Man is reserved, a man of few words and great dedication. Nevertheless, his portrayal is genuine and realistic – in my opinion, he nails the role.

Chazelle too proves his versatility in direction. La La Land had a completely different tone and theme than First Man, yet he perfectly captures the atmosphere of anxiety and heartache of the early sixties.

The cinematography is, as always, spot on. There are very few questionable shots in this film. Chazelle utilizes plenty of shaky cam in First Man, striking the perfect balance to heighten and demonstrate the turbulence of early rockets.

Chazelle’s skill shines in the scenes inside the cockpit of the rockets. The shaky camera, the actors performance, and the amazing sound design are all there. The audience hears every nut and bolt, weld, and passing wind. Everything comes together to give a sense of anxiety and unstableness.

While the sound engineering was truly genius, the soundtrack was slightly better than average. But “pretty good” in an excellent movie means that the soundtrack is the weakest link in the whole film.

The tracks that play when Armstrong enters space were beautiful, turning the serenity of space into sound. The others, however, sounded  like ordinary orchestrated temp music.

This is disappointing coming from Justin Hurwitz, the composer of both Whiplash and La La Land. Perhaps Chazelle should have gone with a more experienced composer for drama and space films along the lines of Hans Zimmer or John Williams.

Minor criticisms aside, the strong points of First Man are truly spectacular. The scene where the astronauts touch down on the moon is one of the most emotionally powerful I’ve seen in cinema. All the drama and heartache of the first two hours culminate in one scene where Armstrong makes his way down the ladder, finally able to touch the lunar surface and taking his famous forward for mankind.

First Man demonstrates devastating failures and triumphant successes in the age of space with beautiful cinematography, powerful performances, an engaging story, and excellent sound design . Despite some minor soundtrack issues, the movie is expertly made, and a riveting watch.

I give the movie a 9/10.