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First Man Review – Damien Chazelle’s Epic Has All The Right Stuff

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First Man, from Amblin Entertainment, Dreamworks and Universal Pictures, presents the story of the Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and those who yearned, loved and lost before seeing the greatest accomplishment of mankind.

Directed by Damien Chazelle, First Man stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Claran Hinds, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brady Smith, Olivia Hamilton, Brian d’Arcy James, Perla Middleton, Anna Chazelle, J.D. Evermore and William Gregory Lee.

First Man begins with Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, in a test orbital run he attempting to re-enter the atmosphere. His craft, similar to a shuttle design, has one small cockpit and a joy stick to operate the craft. As the plane begins its decent, his joystick appears to get stuck and he bounces thirty thousand feet up into the atmosphere.


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He figures how to push through the decent until he can control the aircraft as a jet and lands in the Mojave Desert. The scene switches to his home, where he is gently reading to a child. The next scene we see Janet Armstrong, played by Claire Foy, and Neil watching the child strapped to a gurney in a hospital.

A large archaic machine is pointed to her head. We find out as Armstrong's daughter Karen, just a toddler, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. In between receiving treatment and his space pilot testing he is told about NASA astronaut recruitment program.

As we see him tenderly caring for his daughter, she doesn’t get any better. She eventually dies. The scene is stoic, and a reflection of the times, little tears, no hysterics, no public displays of emotion. At the wake, he is trying to hold it together and eventually and finally he hides himself away from prying eyes, work colleagues who would see tears as a character flaw or weakness, and sobs. It’s a moving scene, especially so early on.

His daughter's death weighs heavily in his decision to submit his application for the Astronaut program. This is when the film shifts into the space training program. We meet others Chuck  Yeager, played by Matthew Glave, Deke Slayton, played by Kyle Chandler, Gus Grissom, played by Shea Whigham, Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stall, John Glenn, played by John David Whalen, Jim Lovell, played by Pablo Schreiber, Edward Higgins White, played by Jason Clarke and his wife, Pat White, played by Olivia Hamilton.

Along with Armstrong, NASA selects Deke Slayton, Gus Grison, John Glenn, Edward Higgins White, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell. First Man from here forward details the training exercises, the success and hard failures of the program.

Space travel is dangerous as we see and the exhilaration behind the thought of it comes at a great price for the actuality of achievement. NASA suffered in those early days and the film doesn’t shy away from the setbacks and death of those who gave their lives to accomplish the dream of the President John F. Kennedy of which there is no, mid-film, during the heat of preperation, reference nor his space exploration "We choose to go to the Moon" message.

We do experience loss along the way and these scenes are well done and resonate. Overall for a generation who has taken space travel and the effort to reach those first milestones for granted, First Man is very well done.

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Without knowing Neil Armstrong personally or reading a biography one must take Gosling’s portrayal as actual and he does deliver well. The time dictated the reserved emotion. The action scenes are good, well delivered and having ridden in a Space Shuttle simulator the shaking and jarring is actual.

I guess my only criticism of course, which has been mentioned by others I’m sure, are the absence of flag planting. Armstrong spoke as he stepped onto the moon’s surface. And I feel the film is not complete without the planting.

Of course to me, the loss of life along the way, the program to reach space travel was costly, good men knew the challenges, accepted them and paid the ultimate price so that America could advance the space exploration program. To leave out the pinnacle of achievement is a critical mistake. 

We're a sentimental people when it comes to certain milestones in our history and the moon landing is one of those moments.

First Man is an epic, big achievement and strong second feature for La La Land’s Damien Chazelle. It is well done, tender, emotional, sentimental. The talent deliver strong, heartfelt, performances. Expect First Man to be around during awards season.

First Man is in theaters October 12, 2018. See it.

 

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