“First Man” is not a movie you watch light-heartedly. While most movies show the idea of early space flight and lunar achievements as exciting and benevolent, “First Man” shows the harsh realities of the men who dared to travel to the unknown. From almost being lost in space, to the threat of crashing into a crater while so close to the astronaut’s ultimate goal, the movie continues to ramp up the tension—despite the audience knowing the historical conclusion. These scenes are then contrasted with the hardships they faced back on the ground with their families, specifically how their wives deal with the fact that their husbands might face death at any moment. The movie follows famous astronaut, Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, and his family as they journey from losing their daughter to his becoming the first man to ever set foot on the moon. Damien Chazelle, who also directed “La La Land” and “Whiplash,” and Gosling do a beautiful, yet subtle job of depicting the worth of the sacrifices it took to be the first person on the moon.
If you are expecting this movie to be filled with action or heart-throbbing moments, then those expectations will be dashed right from the opening scene. Armstrong was a typical nuclear male in the 1960’s—he didn’t show emotion and he only focused on his work. While some might see this as being icy and unfair to his wife, played by Claire Foy of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Crown” fame, it is shown as a coping mechanism for the death of his daughter, Karen. While it is not explicitly told, we can assume through Gosling’s acting and Chazelle’s cinematography that this event would be the driving force for Neil’s goal of getting to the moon. On the surface, he is a stoic man who doesn’t let his emotions affect his dedication to the project. However, underneath there is a silent emotion that Gosling lets escape every so often.
Silent emotion is an ongoing theme in the movie. Gosling does most of his acting not through the dialogue, but rather through the feelings he conveys in his face and eyes—a typical Gosling-ism seen in other films such as “Blade Runner 2049” and “La La Land.” Chazelle helps us to realize these emotions through the work of certain camera angles and point of view (POV) shots. Most of the time, the movie is shot looking at Armstrong from the outside, just like his wife and the rest of the world sees him. However, when he starts to feel strong emotions, we begin to get much tighter shots onto Gosling’s face and sometimes even from his own perspective. These are the only times in the film that the audience ever gets inside of the astronaut’s head and sees how he’s really feeling—a perspective even his wife and children don’t get.
These POV shots happen both when Neil has his helmet on—when he’s working towards getting to space and completing the Gemini and Apollo missions—and when he takes his helmet off at home struggling to be a good dad to his two sons. These shots have a theme of their own: they only appear when Neil is thinking about death in some way. On the ground, it happens whenever he begins to think of his late daughter Karen, and at work it is whenever there is a possibility of his own death. Gosling fears death just like every other human but he continues to push on with his journey of getting to the moon. At first the audience takes this danger for granted, but the movie is relentless with its insistence of danger at every turn. This is especially shown whenever Armstrong is in the cockpit of a spacecraft when it’s launching, and all we can see is his perspective as he glances out of a tiny window—just hoping that the shuttle doesn’t explode during launch. When things do go wrong, we are shown a clear view of Gosling’s face as he quickly navigates the problem at hand.
While we are shown the hardships of every single variable of early space exploration, the movie inserts the view of what’s happening at home as well. While Neil is off flying above the clouds, struggling to stay alive in space, we are shown his wife’s, Janet Armstrong, reactions to everything that happens. Unlike her husband, Janet shows her emotions clearly on her face and in the way she talks to her friend and fellow astronaut wife. The shots during these scenes are almost all intimate close-ups, showing how scared she truly is and how easy these emotions climb out of her. It is clear that she understands what she married into, but is struggling with the lack of communication from her husband. This provides a grounded perspective as opposed to the more “head-in-the-clouds” one that Neil seems to have. Not only do we see the consequences the space program had on the country during that time, but also what it was like for the astronauts and their families who worked on the project directly.
As the movie weaves toward its conclusion, the audience is reminded of the deaths of so many astronauts not only in NASA, but who were also family friends of the Armstrongs. This makes the audience begin to question why Neil continues with his mission. The answer is ultimately found in the quiet, yet powerful conclusion—giving us a new perspective of the story we all believe we know so well. As Neil says after his first step into a new frontier: “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” It was also one giant step towards the healing of a man who struggled not only to let go of his late daughter, but to connect with his family and his wife who struggled with this loss as well. Sometimes being up in space gives someone a new perspective.