Astronaut Neil Armstrong is hailed as an American hero who brought the human race to the moon for the first time. In director Damien Chazelle’s latest movie, First Man, Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a quietly ambitious, enigmatic man who endured grief and fear with stoicism as he worked to achieve his dreams and to advance science. Chazelle strikes a tone of intimate realism to capture the high stakes for the country and for NASA, but most of all for the Armstrong family.
After a mid-college tour of duty as a Navy pilot in Korea, Armstrong finished school, married Janet Shearon, started a family, and took a job as an experimental aircraft test pilot for NACA, the earlier version of NASA. He jumped at the opportunity to join NASA’s Project Gemini after tragedy struck his family.
The Armstrongs moved to Houston, where they settled near the other astronauts’ families and became a community of their own. This community was sorely tested with the losses of various astronauts, resulting in a natural fear for the husbands and fathers involved, but also in the promotion of Armstrong through the ranks. Claire Foy (The Crown) plays Janet Armstrong as a woman with enormous inner strength. She’s excited for her husband’s advancement but terrified of what it could mean for her and her family.
There were other costs too. Chazelle doesn’t shy away from the fact that many Americans were against the government spending that supported NASA. The Vietnam War was raging and the Civil Rights movement was mourning the loss of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Chazelle includes a performance from singer Leon Bridges as Gil Scott-Heron giving a rendition of the poem “Whitey on the Moon,” which contrasts the accomplishments of the white astronauts with the racial injustice suffered by Black Americans at the time. Many wondered, Why are we putting so many resources toward a moonshot when there was so much else going on?
While the film makes clear that Armstrong, NASA, and the American government were motivated by the race against Russia and the Russian aerospace achievements, this movie is more concerned with Armstrong’s conquering of his mind and body than about the American triumph over the space race. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong with such restraint that the viewer often feels as completely shut out from his emotional state as his wife seemed to be.
First Man is filled with strong performances, talented direction, and beautiful cinematography that do justice to the amazing science of God’s vast creation and the awe-inspiring feat of the moon landing, as well as the emotional and financial toll the landing took on the astronauts, their families, and the nation. (Universal)