First Man - A Review
Sam Burnham, Curator
I typically like my drama to be in the movie rather than about the movie. So I’ve been curious about First Man. With so many complaints about the depiction of the flag planting, the portrayal (or lack) of Neil Armstrong’s patriotism, and whatever else has been stirring, I really wanted to see this one.
From a stylistic standpoint, this is a well made film. The use of camera effects and angles, music, perspective, all contribute to the storytelling. Building drama in this story is hard because (spoiler alert) Apollo 11 was successful. Making a well-known success still be suspenseful is hard. But this film does that. One of the greatest triumphs in human history has you on the edge of your seat, even 50 years later.
As hindsight is 20/20, it is easy for us to think the moon shot was an simple task. In our mind, there was no chance that Michael Collins would have to return to Earth alone, leaving his two teammates to remain forever at rest on the lunar surface. There is no thought of something going wrong somewhere along the half a million miles the mission covered from the Earth to the moon and back. It could have easily gone very differently. This film shakes your assurances and awakens you to the truth that Apollo 11 was a frighteningly dangerous mission. In doing so it gives a picture of the courage and adventurous spirit that was required to pull it off.
While there has been much talk about the flag, it’s there. You plainly see if standing proud alongside The Eagle at Tranquility Base. There is no scene depicting Armstrong and Aldrin planting it but that is not something I missed in the story. I didn’t walk away thinking that the story suffered from that omission.
On the contrary, this story is not about the flag, it’s really only about the moon because walking on the moon is what Armstrong is famous for. He is the subject of the movie. And the story gave me an appreciation for him as a person. Seeing the man struggle with so much while pressing forward into iconic status in the pantheon of American history. Armstrong is a pragmatic engineer with a stoic outward appearance but a deeply emotional core. Viewers are privy to his inner thoughts and emotions while those who love him most are often left curious. But the Armstrong we get to know in First Man is the hero America needs. He’s not arrogant or selfish. He’s confident without bragging and courageous without carelessness. He’s quiet and reflective yet competent and inspiring.
Ryan Gosling sold me Neil Armstrong. I bought it. With a larger than life character, that’s no easy task. But he does well with it and helps you emotionally connect with an American legend.
Claire Foy, who was so convincing as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, never gives a hint of the Queen’s English. Her passionate portrayal should get her some buzz come awards season.
Jason Clarke, who I loved in Mudbound, is excellent in his supporting role as Ed White.
You can’t make a NASA movie without Deke Slayton and Kyle Chandler is quite convincing in that role.
At the risk of being repetitive, the key to appreciating First Man is to read the title again. It’s not about America. It’s not about the moon, the moon landing, or the space program. It’s about Neil Armstrong. It accomplishes that task thoroughly. If you go in expecting that, you can’t be disappointed.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire