First Man

Lunar Space Walk

July 21, 1969 is an important day in Smith family history. My parents were watching Apollo 11 perform the first lunar landing. When astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon and later walked, my brother Kent, then 14 months, started walking across the room, marking his first steps on earth.

The moon landing carried cultural significance as well and elevated Armstrong to superstar status. My parents experienced the event and its aftermath firsthand, and I heard about it and studied it in school. My kids, however, have studied little about space travel and the lunar landing. So when my parents, my 14-year-old daughter Ella, and I went together to see First Man last week, we were all entering the theater with different historical viewpoints.

None of us in the family had read the James R. Hansen book, First Man, which focused on Armstrong’s personal life and formed the basis of the movie. While the story uses NASA and the international space race in the 1960s as a backdrop, the movie primarily serves as a character study of Armstrong. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong and again teams up with director Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land.

The story starts with Armstrong and his then-wife Janet struggling with the illness and eventual death of their toddler daughter Karen. Armstrong manifests his grief by immersing himself in his work and never talking with Janet (Claire Foy) about Karen’s death. Armstrong remains guarded, rarely showing his emotions, whether he’s talking with his family, mourning the loss of his astronaut friends, or when he receives news that he’ll command Apollo 11 and will be the first human to step foot on the moon should the mission succeed.

While watching someone remain stoic and without emotion for an entire film doesn’t always make for exciting cinema, Chazelle deftly uses sound to help enhance or supplement’s Armstrong’s actions and non-reactions. Dialogue is sparse, and silence is as much a part of the movie as talking. In scenes where Armstrong is in an airplane or spacecraft, we often hear only the surroundings: the flipping of switches, breathing, and the wind. When there are complications in a flight, the audience hears the rattling of jostled metal and no screams for help.

The other important compliment to Gosling’s reserved portrayal of Armstrong is Foy’s performance as Janet, who supports her husband fully but has to spend her life trying to figure out how to read her husband. While she remains calm and loyal throughout most of their life together, she adds much-needed emotion to her marriage and the movie.

When asked about the movie, my daughter Ella said the best part was the character development of the Armstrongs. By focusing on Armstrong and those around him, we all learned parts of the story we never knew. Ella also thought – and the rest of us agreed – that the scenes of flight peril were too bumpy and borderline nauseating, as the audience is in the aircraft tumbling along with the crew.

The other part that all four of us agreed on was the length of the movie.

“How long is this movie,” my dad asked about an hour into the movie.

“About two and a half hours,” my mom answered.

“Oh no,” my dad said.

While overall a good movie, it could have been 20 minutes shorter without losing any of the story. With Armstrong’s personality and some repeated action/peril scenes, the movie dragged for all three generations of Smiths in attendance.

While the story uses NASA and the international space race in the 1960s as a backdrop, the movie primarily serves as a character study of Neil Armstrong.

People expecting an action movie or a rah-rah look at U.S. success in space will be disappointed. This is not a movie like Apollo 13 that relies on an ensemble cast and suspense.  Because of his reluctance to be a celebrity, Armstrong stayed out of the spotlight for much of his post-moonwalk life up until his death in 2012. The movie enlightens the audience on his struggles and perseverance but is not meant as a patriotic celebration of history or a look at the space program as a whole. Instead, First Man is a biopic of one of the more famous Americans in the last 50 years, one who inspired people to dream big and even inspired some people to walk.

2.75 out of 4 stars. I rated it 3 stars and Mom and Dad had no issues with my rating.  Ella, however, gave it a 2, so I’m averaging it down to 2.75. Rated PG-13 for language and intense. If you watch the film in 3-D and have motion sickness issues, take your preventative medications!

Click here for more by Matthew Kauffman Smith.

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