It is almost impossible to think about Neil Amstrong without picturing him stepping onto the moon saying: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. For you not to feel admiration and to not think of him as a hero. Yet, 'First Man' shows Neil Armstrong as just Neil, as just a man.
Directed by Damien Chazelle and written by Josh Singer, the film is the adaptation of the James RA Hansesn’s book biography, 'First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong'. Coming out on 11th October, 'First Man' can be defined as one of the most mentally introspective performances of Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong) in his career.
Starting in 1961 the film shows Neil Armstrong's journey to the moon, portraying his home life and the dangers that came from trying to send men to the moon in unstable rockets which, Claire Foy (Neil’s wife, Janet) describes as “models made out of balsa wood”. Models that will have the spectator feeling entrapped; thanks to Chazelles’s very effective shots of the interiors.
The very first shot of the film is chaotic and claustrophobic. Death and the sense of cosmic isolation are sought and alludes to 'First Ma'n becoming an introspective study of grief.
The first to die is Neil’s young daughter - sick with cancer. With that the sequence of the story is set: a mission, a death, a mission, a death. Only reprieved once the protagonist lands on the moon and arrives back home. It is no secret as to how the story will end. Yet, Chazelle portrayed all the dangers in such a detailed way that there was still suspense.
Also, the film brings forward the questions: did Neil really want to come back home? Or did he perhaps hope to see his daughter? Was he wishing for death? Ryan Gosling’s riveting performance allows the spectator to wonder over these questions.
Nail Amstrong is certainly a man of science and quiet strength. One who does not indulge in showing his emotions neither to the public nor in his private life amongst his family. It almost seems as if he was able to forget his daughter with focusing his attention on the moon project. Yet, the image of her soft hair is repeatedly shown and it becomes more and more frequent as pilots and friends start to die one after another.
Soon the moon appears to become his only way of escaping from the pain of mourning, the pain of solitude and the pain of not being able to express love to his two sons who are still alive. He puts on a grey solemn face for the press and he will keep it on until, on the moon he appears to symbolically let his daughter go.
What is really powerful is the closing scene of the film, where Neil meets his wife, Janet for the first time after the mission. There are no unnecessary words, no tears, just a mutual comprehension between the two. Even though they are two very different people, their relationship played out on the screen results in a empathic and relatable companionship for the audience.
In the background political dynamics of the cold war acts through pretty much all the film. But Chezelle did not want to tell the magnificent space travel towards the moon as the glorious USA victory over URSS. He wanted to tell the story of a man trapped between a kitchen sink and the black silent space. A man whose real feelings and motivation will perhaps remain forever a mystery.
Overall, 'First Man' is neither a space travel story nor a biopic. It stands in the middle and offers an original, sentimental, and, critical profile of both the first man landing on the moon and the mankind he represented. This is a film suitable for both types of audience: those interested in the making of space travel itself and others who like a subtle tearjerker film on a Friday evening.