Chazelle Takes One Leap Forward with ‘First Man’

“We choose to go to the moon,” President John F. Kennedy declared in his famous 1962 speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Eight years in the life of Neil Armstrong, beginning with his role as a test pilot to becoming the first man to set foot on the moon.

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Edward Higgins White), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin)

Ryan Gosling (c) as Neil Armstrong in "First Man." (Universal Pictures)

Ryan Gosling (c) as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (Universal Pictures)

In 1961, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was working as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. During this time he flew X-15 and other military aircraft to determine their suitability under various conditions. It was a difficult job as he risked life and limb as he pushed the limits of the aircraft that he was tasked to fly.

The following year, Armstrong begins training as an astronaut at NASA. For the next seven years, Armstrong endures personal and professional hardships along the way to becoming the first man to set foot on the moon.

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in a scene from "First Man." (Universal Pictures)

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in a scene from “First Man.” (Universal Pictures)

“We choose to go to the moon,” President John F. Kennedy declared in his famous 1962 speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

In many ways, “First Man” embodies the spirit of that speech. If Americans work together, even a seemingly impossible task such as walking on the moon can be achieved. Rather than gloss over the challenges involved in developing the space program and focus primarily on the Apollo 13 mission, the film underscores the difficulty in the entire process. “First Man” shows step by step, just how difficult and dangerous the journey was that Armstrong and his fellow astronauts faced.

This approach is in sharp contrast to the one taken by the makers of “Hidden Figures.” another recent film about the space program. In that film, the challenges relate more to the obstacles faced by three black women in a patriarchal environment rather the difficulties in performing their duties as mathematicians. Once the obstacles of sexism are “solved,” the film plays like a sports film where audiences cheer as the “goal” is achieved.

On the other hand, “First Man” is structured more like a war film. As a result, it takes a tougher and more subtle approach. Its more about surviving the entire process than achieving a specific goal.

Ryan Gosling leads the fine cast with a nuanced and controlled performance as Armstrong. Claire Foy is also strong as his wife in a limited yet effective role. Josh Singer effectively adapts James R. Hansen’s book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.

Damien Chazelle, whose previous credits include “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” directs with confidence and maturity. In addition to Gosling, Chazelle continues his collaboration with composer Justin Hurwitz, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren from “La La Land.” The editing and cinematography are top-notch. Hurwitz’s score is evocative in some places, but distracting in others.

While Chazelle and his collaborators clearly land on the side in support of NASA’s space program, the filmmakers are unafraid of showing that many Americans were not supportive of it. As little as it is mentioned today, when the program first began, the majority of Americans were actually against the government funding space exploration.

If anything the film shows what can be achieved with vision, leadership, and collaboration. In these politically divisive times, “First Man” is the kind of film we need to see right now.

“First Man” is distributed by Universal and opens on Friday, October 12, 2018 in wide release. The film is rated PG-13.

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