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Review: ‘First Man’ puts audiences in the front seat for the moon landing (Includes first-hand account)

To make history is to be forever immortalized and even though there are sometimes countless people who contribute to the ground-breaking feat, only one or two names are often remembered. Most things are accomplished on the successes and sacrifices of others, but the only story that seems to matter is that of the victorious. Yet, even then, the final act may be recounted in detail while everything that led to it remains in darkness. First Man chronicles Neil Armstrong’s revolutionary moon mission, but it begins its tale well before the launch.

Neil (Ryan Gosling) was a test pilot and engineer for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where he was considered a bit of a maverick in spite of his unparalleled ability to stay calm in high-pressure situations. After suffering a tragic loss, the world presents a new opportunity for a fresh start as NASA is recruiting astronauts. Accepted into the program, Neil’s family moves to Cape Kennedy in Florida and he embarks on a years-long project to beat the Soviets to the moon. There are a lot of ups and downs, and several lives are lost as the country questions the necessity of space exploration, arguing the steep expenditure could be better spent on social services. But the “Space Race” was a contest the U.S. didn’t want to lose, regardless of cost.

The film spans nearly a decade as it relates the events leading up to Neil being the first man on the moon. While many of the professional hurdles and wins are known or expected, this movie takes a keen and unexpected interest in Neil’s personal life. He was forever changed by his daughter’s illness as it both drove him to succeed, while also causing him to distance himself from his loved ones. He throws himself into the Gemini project and is fiercely committed to its success, but he’s also a team player and is satisfied with staying on the ground as long as they achieve their goal. Even though he’s a civilian now, he still clearly has a military mindset. On the flipside, the external challenges include mechanical failure, political interference, unknown conditions and catastrophic loss of life.

In addition to the narrative focusing on the minutiae of Neil’s life, director Damien Chazelle uses very close camera frames to place audiences at the centre of this trailblazing undertaking. Viewed on the IMAX screen, this experience can be overwhelming at times as the screen violently shakes while a spacecraft spins uncontrollably or when viewers are practically inside the astronaut’s helmet alongside them. Yet, it’s also one of the elements that makes this picture so compelling and more than the average biopic of a historical figure.

Gosling is good as the reserved astronaut, but Claire Foy is incredible as his often-exasperated wife, Janet, who is not afraid to take a stand when required. Janet is a great wife and mother, but Neil’s job and his changed personality following their daughter’s illness takes a tremendous toll on her, which Foy makes visibly clear. She is superb and will hopefully be recognized during the awards season. Many of the other faces at NASA are also quite recognizable, including Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Ciarán Hinds, Kyle Chandler, Shea Wingham, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas, all of whom contribute to the supporting ensemble; Stoll is particularly noteworthy for his portrayal of a potentially unpopular Buzz Aldrin.

At 141 minutes, they have ample time to tell the story behind one of mankind’s greatest achievements by shedding light on the aspects generally dismissed when considering the landing.

Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Jason Clarke

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