First Man (2018)
October 13, 2018 7:54 AM - Subscribe

A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

A. A. Dowd - AV Club:
“Why do you think space travel is important?” a NASA bigwig asks Neil Armstrong during the biggest job interview of his life. It’s all about a change in perspective, the future astronaut replies—about finding a new way to see the world, and maybe everything else, too. First Man, Damien Chazelle’s grippingly unconventional portrait of this “reluctant American hero,” offers a fresh outlook of its own. As biopics go, it’s singularly focused on literal nuts-and-bolts work, the years of elbow grease and sacrifice it took to get Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew to the moon. Yet the film also views this historic event almost entirely through the eyes (and by extension, psychology) of its real-life icon. What Chazelle has made, in other words, is a nitty-gritty procedural that treats the NASA odyssey as a window into Armstrong’s unknowable mind, an inner space as mysterious as the outer one he blasts himself into.
Bryan Bishop - The Verge:
Chazelle has made an impeccably crafted film, so finely detailed and shot through with danger and menace that it often feels like this is the first time the realities of the 1960s space program have been accurately portrayed. The opening X-15 flights kick things off. It isn’t some hotshot bit of piloting designed to impress the audience with the lead character’s skills; Armstrong almost dies in the first minutes of First Man, and his situation doesn’t get any safer from there. Chazelle and his collaborators are intent on conveying the risks of space exploration in a way that feels immediate and real. Part of it is the events they choose to highlight: more things in First Man go wrong than right. But it’s also the way the film dwells on the ramifications of those failures, like the moments with Janet and the other wives, or the way Armstrong has to rush out of a friend’s funeral reception because he simply can’t cope. Then there’s the cinematic execution of the space sequences.
Alissa Wilkinson - Vox:
That the movie never really reaches a state of full-blown exhilaration is likely to frustrate viewers who are looking to have their sense of ownership in its historical events reinforced. But rather than focus on American achievement, First Man pays its deepest respects to Armstrong and to the men and women who risked and sacrificed their lives to get to the moon. The movie sees Armstrong’s reserve as both a blessing and a curse, a gift and a problem, but it’s unequivocal in its admiration of his humility. And in this way, it feels less like it’s forcing a myth onto the man who made it clear to his biographer that he wasn’t seeking renown — and more like a statement of gratitude.
posted by octothorpe (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I had so little interest in seeing another NASA biopic (which is not to say that I don't love many of the existing ones), but these reviews are making me reconsider. The focus on the work, and not what it symbolized, seems really important.

And because nothing can escape the poison of the right wing, there seems to be a campaign to denigrate the movie as anti-American and "globalist" because it omits a scene of Armstrong planting the flag on the moon.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:12 AM on October 13, 2018

It's missing the flag planting scene but you see the flag so the "controversy" is stupid and wrong. It's also missing a lot of scenes that you'd expect for such a film as Chazelle didn't make an adventure film or even a bio-pic but made a very tightly focused and subjective character study of both Armstrongs, Neil and Janet.
posted by octothorpe at 8:37 AM on October 13, 2018

I think my initial disinterest might have come from the trailer, which tries to sell the *suspense* of the program, which is hard, considering we know exactly who lives and who dies. The idea of looking more deeply into the much more reserved (than, e.g. Buzz Aldrin or John Glenn) Armstrong is actually really fascinating.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:54 AM on October 13, 2018

It’s a terrific film, and the director did an amazing job. I’d interviewed Armstrong for a documentary, years ago, and I believe he would have enjoyed the film. IRL, he was not as taciturn as official bios make him seem—he told me that he’d been a door-to-door salesman and had quite a gift of gab. Fun facts—he was a member of the Purdue Marching Band and performed in the Varsity Varieties (he wrote and directed several musical skits .)
posted by Ideefixe at 11:37 AM on October 13, 2018 [13 favorites]

I was lucky enough to be invited by a friend to a special screening for NASA employees. It was a 'thank you' to NASA for consulting on the film

I was expecting something like an Apollo 13 feel-good type film. That's not what it is. I was completely blown away by it. It's focus is on Armstrong's inner life and the sacrifices made not just by him, but by everyone around him, to get a human being on the moon. It's emotionally true and doesn't pander at all to the audience.
posted by J. Tiberius at 3:53 PM on October 13, 2018 [9 favorites]

Saw it yesterday in IMAX.

It's a fascinating demonstration of how to make a biopic exploring the life of a man who was not so much introverted as intensely inward-focussed.

There's a shot repeated three times through the movie of Armstrong's own viewpoint of the sky turning from blue to the blackness of space during launch: in the opening scene during the X-15 flight, then for Gemini 8, and finally during Apollo 11. It felt to me that we were being shown what Armstrong alludes to in his selection interview, his inward drive to 'slip the surly bonds of Earth' (and I think I recall High Flight being quoted fairly early on.)

The moon landing sequence, for which the film switches to full IMAX, is both visually stunning and absolutely nail-biting in its tension, even knowing the outcome. But for me the most visceral scene was the Gemini 8 launch, depicted entirely either from Armstrong's viewpoint or within the capsule. As I said to a friend on leaving the movie, I don't think I've ever seen it conveyed so clearly how the early spaceflights really were cases of being in a tin can strapped on top of a repurposed nuclear missile.

(Mind you, not just early spaceflight. I heard a talk by an ISS astronaut recently who commented that re-entry in a Soyuz capsule was like going over a cliff in a Lada, except the Lada is on fire. And of course the crew of the latest Soyuz had an even more dramatic ride this week.)

The two foci of the film are very much Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy's Janet Armstrong. Foy, in particular, gives an amazing performance as a wife who clearly loves her husband but seems to despair of ever being able to communicate with him. It wouldn't surprise me if most viewers left the film assuming that the Armstrongs divorced soon after Apollo 11, although apparently their marriage endured another 25 years.

This focus means that we get very little overt introduction to those around Armstrong. A scan of the character list shows that most of the key figures associated with Apollo appear, but few are specifically identified, again cementing the focus on the Armstrongs. For instance, we see a lot of a person who is clearly important in managing who flies on which mission, but wears flight overalls rather than a suit; I knew he was Deke Slayton, but I don't think he's ever expressly introduced. However, as a space history nerd it was nice to see Ed White and Elliot See having their sadly-curtailed stories told. Indeed, although the film doesn't explore this, See's death, along with that of his intended Gemini 9 crewmate Charles Bassett, led to a crew reshuffle that eventually put Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 (as discussed here).

One warning: save for the almost-silent lunar landing scenes, much of First Man is very loud. Whether or not that's just IMAX I don't know, but if you find that sort of thing difficult, do be warned.
posted by Major Clanger at 3:17 AM on October 14, 2018 [7 favorites]

The foley should win an Oscar. All those creaking, groaning pressure vessels where you could feel every weld and bolt under strain. RCS thrusters firing, misfiring and burping clear. Those 27 SpaceX Merlin engines roaring and crackling in place of 5 Rocketdyne F1s. And over it all, Armstrong's preternaturally calm radio discipline. Really great work.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:31 AM on October 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

I really liked this film but with one reservation. I normally hate bio-pics or at least the standard type of "this, then this, then this" kind of construction that they usually have so I was pleased that this film was more of a character study than a boring parade of events. Making it such an internally focused story seems like a bold choice on the part of the filmmakers but it works so well. Gosling and Foy are just so good in this that I can't imagine that they won't get Oscar nominations; especially Foy. She conveys so much emotion just through her eyes in those huge super-tight closeups.

The flight and space scenes are just remarkable and unlike any recreation of them that I've ever seen. I love how relentlessly subjective they are; we almost never see any heroic glamor shots of rockets shooting through space just the horrible noise and vibrations that the astronauts had to endure. The sounds and shaking are just so relentless during those scenes; it's amazing that anyone could think and remember their procedures under conditions like that. I heard Chazelle interviewed on Fresh Air and he said that they had to suspend filming for a bit because Gosling's brain was getting so beating up by all the spinning during filming that he was starting to have cognitive issues.

The supporting cast is great too considering how tightly focused the film is on the two leads. Shea Whigham is really the great character actor of our generation; I've never not loved a performance by him.

Back to my one reservation which is the whole daughter thing. I don't doubt that losing a child was hugely traumatic and life changing for him but making it the "Rosebud" of the story really brought me out of the movie because it's just a cliche screenwriter thing of having to find that one key to unlock the character. I almost groaned out loud during the crater scene.
posted by octothorpe at 7:26 AM on October 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Saw it last night, and boy howdy did I have a lot of thoughts running through my head throughout... I want to see it again, and bring a notebook. In short, I thought it was one of the best films I've ever seen, and definitely the best NASA/space-related thing.
The flight scenes were remarkable for their candor, the tension and barely-holding-it-together were perfectly portrayed, especially the Gemini mission (and I loved that Gemini got as much, if not more, screen time than Apollo. The death of the Apollo 1 astronauts was chilling, the popping of the door was horrifying for its unsentimentality.
The thing that really stuck with me was the contrasts of sentimentality between the flight and family scenes-- the lack of heroic portrayal was really, really well done as far as astronauting goes. It's focused entirely on Armstrong to the point that very few other astronauts are even mentioned by name. I definitely agree about the "Rosebud" moment, though. One bit really got me sentimental, though (beyond all the thoughts about what I'd be like if I lost my daughter, which definitely came around regularly)-- actually using Charlie Duke's response to the Eagle's landing transmission. "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathin again. Thanks a lot."
It's breathtakingly beautiful, which I think is the point of having the work being the focus. As someone who grew up reading Life in Space, and every single piece of NASA-related press I could get my hands on, it really does reward viewers who already know a fair bit of the history, and I wonder how it plays to those who don't. It definitely doesn't pander or digress into exposition.
I can't wait to see it again, this time in IMAX.
posted by rp at 10:08 AM on October 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Missed the edit window, but one more thought, re the sound design. It was possibly the best sonic experience I've ever had in a theater. The use of silence was riveting, and, even more incredibly, the audience was right there with it-- nobody even moved during the silent scenes. Dead quiet. Utterly remarkable.
posted by rp at 10:25 AM on October 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Here's what bothered me about the Rosebud scene. IT DIDN'T FUCKING HAPPEN. So, fuck this movie for taking a true story and grafting this emotional beat to it that never actually existed.

I really enjoyed the space scenes. They were each tense, exhilarating, and captivating. (Though, there were several moments of far too much shaky-cam.)

The rest of it was just a bunch of white men being far too manly to talk about their feelings with womenfolk, or each other.
posted by graventy at 9:43 AM on October 16, 2018

I didn’t care for it’s weird relentless miserabilism. When they got to the point of reading out the contingency speech for astronauts dying on the moon I may have actually started laughing at it.
posted by Artw at 2:30 PM on October 21, 2018

(Oh, And you totally see the flag they’re up in arms about, so that bullshit is totally some Red Cups nonsense)
posted by Artw at 2:35 PM on October 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I watched a documentary that showed a fast-forwarded clip of Armstrong and Aldrin dicking around with the flag trying to get it to stand up right for what seems like half an hour, followed shortly afterward by a shot of the lander taking off and blowing the damn thing right over.

The filmmakers put the exact correct amount of moon flag in the movie, is what I'm saying.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:08 AM on October 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Here's what bothered me about the Rosebud scene. IT DIDN'T FUCKING HAPPEN. So, fuck this movie for taking a true story and grafting this emotional beat to it that never actually existed.

It was speculated in the biography and Armstrong’s sister sort of agreed.

So, yeah, a little hokey, especially with Speilberg also on the project and that overly sentimental ending. But it’s not out of left field.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:38 PM on October 22, 2018

Ehhhh... it’s still basically in the realm of making shit up and so jokey it was the other thing I had to suppress a laugh at. As an emotional payoff it’s kind of awful.
posted by Artw at 9:59 PM on October 22, 2018

I thought it was a really good movie overall. I wondered if the "Rosebud" scene really happened and not surprised that it didn't. I have a feeling that the real Armstrong was not as stoic and melancholy as Gosling played him but Gosling is really good at the melancholy so go with your strengths I guess. It's worth it for the riveting launch and moon sequences.
posted by Justin Case at 12:03 PM on October 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

A thing I really wasn’t sure of at the time and in retrospect really like: the de-emphasizing of external shots in favor of close ups of faces and first person views out of tiny windows. That’s a place where the stylistic choice not to go the obvious heroic route really works.
posted by Artw at 12:14 PM on October 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

When they got to the point of reading out the contingency speech for astronauts dying on the moon...
It doesn't help that the speech is a weird knockoff of Rupert Brooke.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2018

It's real speech written by William Safire.
posted by octothorpe at 2:07 PM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I know.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:15 PM on October 27, 2018

I don't have a problem with the narrative of leaving the bracelet on the Moon, just how it was portrayed in the movie. A close shot Ryan Gosling's sad face was overdoing, but it was probably one of the best ways of communicating the narrative to a general audience.

The ending was the only really annoying, WTF part, as it implies that Armstrong was free to bond with his wife after Apollo. That seemed odd.

Overall a good film, with a few week spots. I think the focusing exclusively on Armstrong was not the best choice, 'cause it took hundreds of thousands of people to get them to them on the Moon. But Apollo 11 is bit of anomaly in the program, as there were few real problems, 'cause they had all be mostly sorted out by that point.

Would be interested in a movie based on the guy who stayed in orbit, Mike Collins. His book "Carrying the Fire" is a really good read and highly recommended.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:05 AM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

It's focused entirely on Armstrong to the point that very few other astronauts are even mentioned by name.

Indeed. I am not the least knowledgeable person about the space program but reading the cast list afterwards I found myself thinking, "John Glenn? Gordo Cooper? Which ones were they?"

But yes, the focus is zoomed in on the Armstrongs as tight as it can go. Except for the Apollo 1 fire and Janet coming down to Mission Control to demand the squawk box be turned back on, I think Neil is in every scene.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:07 PM on November 14, 2018

Yeah, I laughed when movie Armstrong referred to the command module pilot as "Mike," a character we hadn't been introduced to at all.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:45 AM on November 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

This review by Richard Brody, New Yorker, seems kind of nonsensical to me.
... With this sequence, Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly—those pesky intellectuals, blacks, and Hispanics who go on TV or into the street demanding “gimme” while the likes of Neil and his exclusively white, male colleagues uncomplainingly put their lives on the line to accomplish historic things in the interest of “mankind.” In its explicit content, and by artful omission, “First Man” subscribes to the misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness.
Like, in your head buddy? First he complains that we see a homogenous America, then he complains that the various non-homogenous American-culture scenes that we do see have an embedded political "point"; he's invented his entire criticism out of whole cloth. Seems like Brody is a victim of the binary-choice/binary-perception fallacy so present in modern discourse. So to be clear, between Brody and the flag-complainers, neither the left nor the right can like this film. Yet here we are, on MeFi, with no one complaining.

(Also, I thought Gosling sounded like Jonah Hill in Maniac... repeatedly... a weird thing given that I can even never remember Hill's name and I mostly disliked Maniac.)
posted by sylvanshine at 7:19 PM on January 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I finally saw this last night and I am A) kicking myself hard for not getting to an IMAX screening of this when it was out (in my defense, October was a crazy busy month for me) and B) absolutely livid at the lack of Oscar nominations here. Best Picture for sure, and Claire Foy. All of the flight sequences were gripping and breathtaking. The contrast between them and the quiet of regular life between them was powerful.
posted by dnash at 1:55 PM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was born into a world where man had already walked on the moon, and have always taken the accomplishment for granted in a sense. This movie really captures the sheer amount of work and endurance and sacrifice it took to get to the moon, and what an incredible achievement that first moon walk was. During the flight scenes, in which the spacecraft always shook so hard and so noisily it was a wonder the astronauts were able to think straight, I kept thinking, "No way would I trust my life to that rattletrap tin can," and the moon walk scene left me breathless.
posted by orange swan at 6:54 PM on April 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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