Damien Chazelle's FIRST MAN
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
This movie is a stark reminder of what is possible when enormous resources and creativity are applied to well defined and outrageously difficult challenges. Victory may result but only after much trial and error, pain, suffering, and tragedy.
Looking back at the first moon landing, as this movie does, also reminds us of the importance of individuals as well as teamwork. The main focus of course is Neil Armstrong, the “first man” of the title. While he has gained a mythical and heroic reputation over the years since 1969, this movie presents him as a highly talented but very human — and even flawed — individual. His family life is intertwined with the details of the US space program and, significantly, both are rendered well and in a balanced fashion.
For me, the high point of the film’s drama is when Armstrong’s wife forces him to sit down with his children and explain that he might not come back from the attempted first moon landing. As a test pilot he has learned to compartmentalize the realities of his profession including the ever present threat of death. Having to explain this reality honestly to his children is as traumatic for him as is the fear of ever-present death he has learned over the years to repress. The subtlety of Ryan Gosling’s performance in this scene is impressive and conveys much about Armstrong’s inner man.
Still, it’s impossible to review this movie without commenting on the action sequences. They are amazing especially when seen and heard in a high definition IMAX theater. The words that come to mind are excruciating, thunderous, visceral, and bone-rattling. I found myself — literally — gripping the theater armrests, especially during the descent to the lunar surface.
It’s a long movie and the number of true and historic events it touches on is impressive. Somewhat disorienting is the use of hand held cameras in interior scenes including in the hallways and bedrooms of the Armstrong home. Nevertheless, this movie is magnificent and a wonderful reminder of what humans are capable of when the chips are down.
Review copyright (c) 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald