Review: First Man [2018]; A Look at Eight Years in the Life of Neil Armstrong

a review by the Crow.

Note: Due to an error, a draft version of this post was uploaded in place of the actual text. The original post has since been deleted. The post has since been updated with a corrected. We apologise for any inconvenience.

…One Small Step (Opening Thoughts)

Ten years and nearly seven months ago, I had the pleasure of (briefly) meeting Buzz Aldrin.

While not one for appearing in photographs, I appeared in a number that night. The one photograph I regret not having taken (even though the opportunity was very much there; and such a photograph does exist out there, somewhere), was one with Mr Aldrin. It was a night that carried a certain sense of accomplishment with it — as it wasn’t as much an occasion I was visiting, but rather had been invited to — and having that photograph taken would’ve only added to my little collection of memories.

Of course, since we on The Corvid Review are a secretive few, bordering on the paranoid, that’s where I would put that story to rest; however, there is a story from that night which is significant to First Man. It’s something that I couldn’t shake from thinking of as I watched the movie, and must mention.

In addition: over the years, I’ve built up a number of experiences that this movie just won’t let me ignore, so some related anecdotes might appear.

First Man is a movie I’ve put off watching for some time — for various reasons, most of which I’d like to leave unmentioned. It’s a movie that concerns a part of my life I’m currently debating moving back into (I make it sound much more dramatic than it really is), concerns arguably the greatest achievement in human history, and concerns an event which carries with it some considerable political baggage (a part of my life I’m moving away from, especially in light of the comedy-show we’re collectively being treated to).

This past weekend, I finally dipped my feathers into the pond and gave First Man a watch.

And what did I think?
Well, let me tell you…


One Giant Leap…

WARNING: This section contains MODERATE spoilers

First Man is a movie with an… unexpected view on things. It manages to cover the story at hand while distinctly straying away from what we’d expect from a “Hollywood” presentation of events. And I must admit: that’s far from what I’d expected.

The movie presents a series of events scattered over an eight-year period, and begins with tragedy.

Civilian test-pilot (the late) Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is grounded following a tense encounter involving an X-15 and the edge of the Earth’s atomsphere. The issue? He’s been accruing a number of mishaps during test flights and is deemed to be distracted. And the movie spares us little time in showing us the reason behind his alleged lack of focus: his daughter, Karen. Young Karen Armstrong has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and is in treatment. However, despite Neil Armstrong’s almost maniacal attempts to magic up a cure, she passes away.

And this undercurrent is what sets the tone for our leading man, but not the movie as a whole. Yes, the tragedy is what drives Armstrong into signing up for the Gemini programme, and it leads to a very beautiful moment at the climax of the movie, but it’s also the starting point for what I feel to be this movie’s sorest under-achievement.

The movie follows two storylines. The first concerns NASA as it goes through the Gemini and Apollo programmes. And the second concerns the Armstrong family — especially the dynamic between Neil and his (first) wife Janet (Claire Foy) — as well as the lives of others connected to NASA’s mad plan.

And the movie fails to truly tie the two together. They both exist and play off one another, but fail to feel like they might collide in any significant manner. Even the incident concerning Gemini 8, which could have been a centrepiece for high dramatic tension, fails to leave a mark.

Now, I’m not for dramatising the story at hand through the use of purple fiction, but I am faulting the movie for restraining itself far too much at certain points, and for showing itself off to have a loose grip on its own tone. However, unlike in most cases, these faults don’t necessarily condemn the movie.

Gosling — as in most cases — plays a very stoic and restrained figure. And it works well, considering the man we’re talking about. I wouldn’t pretend to know exactly what Mr Armstrong was like in his day, but what Gosling delivers lines up with a fair bit of what I know of the man. Claire Foy, on the other hand, turns in what I’ve finally decided is a strong performance; but both performances, in the twin lights of the movie’s intent to dress-down much of the romance behind the inevitable Moon Landings, and to ground the story from a more human perspective, seem par for the course.

To reiterate the point: the movie does de-glamourise any chance of romantic notions. It presents NASA as a scrappy, almost-shambolic organisation, scrambling to nip at the Soviets’ heels — which they were. It shows the wires, the bolts, and the dirt behind the scenes of the monumental achievement that we all know will happen. It presents the Apollo 1 disaster in a matter-of-fact fashion. And this ends up working against the movie. While to me, this is something I’m alright with, I can see how it might be seen as underwhelming to the general movie-going public. And in that respect, I find the movie to have missed yet another mark.

However, muted as they are, the scenes set in space are excellent. Reminiscent of the techniques used in Interstellar (a display of the only correct way to portray spaceflight in cinema), and adherent to the laws of physics as much as drama can be, the scenes carry a sense of emptiness and scarcity. They’re realistic, and tie straight into the character’s internal conflict. Some scenes are claustrophobic (just as the original missions were), and the scenes of the moon are nothing but superb.

Heading into First Man, I’d been made aware of certain ‘omissions’. During the scene in which the crew of the Apollo 11 mission disappear into space, I had a feeling that the movie would end — there and then. And to my relief: it didn’t. For a moment, I’d been afraid that the movie would completely omit the landing itself (which would have been a very strange choice).

Everything about the lunar landing is handled with grace, and leads up to that one beautiful moment I’d mentioned earlier. However, in that moment, it was a shock to see that moment appear. In a way, due to all the narrative beats the movie had been through so far, it was something I’d lost touch with. It works. It’s written well. It does strike a chord, but it’s something I feel people might be surprised to see the movie swing back to.

After reading up on the techniques used for the scenes on the moon, I have to say that I’m happy with the results. The moon looks “out of this world”, and the whole landing is dealt with as reverently as possible, as far as I can tell.

Just because I must mention it: There’s been some controversy surrounding the movie in relation to the exclusion of the ‘planting of the flag’. Anyone who’s annoyed about that not being part of this movie simply doesn’t understand what movie it is they’re here to watch. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

However, technically, the movie suffers from one incredibly strange choice.It’s not something that’d lead me to dock it points, but I had a definite problem with some of the camera movements that the team elected to use during scenes involving Armstrong and his family, in scenes relating to his life at home. They were movements that took me out of the scenes; whereas they worked to great effect in scenes concerning Armstrong and NASA.

And just because the only man I’ve met from that storied mission is Buzz Aldrin (played here by Corey Stoll) — who I guess I can call a friend, since we’ve shaken hands (watch out for that right hand; the man is scary strong) — I’m sure he had a big old grin on his face when he watched the scenes in which ‘he’ appeared this movie. I wish there was more of him, to be honest. Mr Aldrin’s (can I call him Buzz?) always been a very forward character, and it’d have been nicer to have someone who spoke a little more.

And just because I found a few photos of my own run-in with a “Saturn V”, here’s a photo to show off the majestic giant-fuel-tank in all it’s showcase glory (friend added for scale):

The Corvid Review - The Crow - Photos from the ISDC 2011 - uBbZ7FD
Photo from 2011, not 2008

On the night I met Mr Aldrin, group of us attended screenings of both In the Shadow of the Moon — a documentary about the Apollo missions (which involved Gareth Edwards, of Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in a minor role) and When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions. And I had that specific documentary in mind as I watched First Man. Not to go into too many details, the documentary shows a host of the twenty-four men who had been closest to the moon, and I had a feeling that First Man would touch upon the subject. At the end of the day, people only ever remember a few of the names; to me, is a little disheartening.

Of course, First Man has a large cast of characters, and a lot of story to deal with. Many characters do appear, but at the end of the day, they flit by the camera — their names and identities being lost to the pace of the movie. I can’t fault First Man for its focus, but it’s something I don’t think I could’ve left unmentioned. I do, however, commend the movie for fitting in as much as it does.

Overall, First Man is a solid showing, but not spectacular. It’s a fine watch, but not something that can be watched casually, I think. It misses a few marks, but has a strong theme running through it, and leads to some great moments, no matter how hard the movie tries to rein itself in. It’s quite the fine movie, and the soundtrack — which I haven’t mentioned so far — is eerie and fits the almost-confused tone of the movie to a tee. Gosling and Foy turn in decent performances, and the movie’s worth a watch just for the highs and lows it hits.

In summary: First Man is one of the better movies I’ve seen in this year (which has been disappointing for the most part), and comes highly recommended.

And at that, before I spiral into any more anecdotes, I’ll sign off.

— Crow out.


Final Ratings

THE CROW: 7/10
THE AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE: TBD/10


Here’s the official poster:

2 thoughts on “Review: First Man [2018]; A Look at Eight Years in the Life of Neil Armstrong”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s