CAPSULE: This is a film that speculates on and tries to recreate the experience of being Neil Armstrong, going from his early flying days to his terrestrial flying days to his flight to the moon where he became the first human being to step out onto our satellite. Then there is the trip home and his being reunited with his wife and family. Rather than giving us the usual wide vistas of space, Chazelle locks in close on faces to give us emotional impact. Personally I would have preferred the spectacle even if that approach has been common before. Directed by: Damien Chazelle; Written by: Josh Singer. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Neil Armstrong was the first human ever to set foot on any celestial body besides Earth. One would expect that he would be a hero to the majority of his fellow humans. But to the best of my knowledge there have been only two narrative movies about him. He did appear as a character in APOLLO 13 and a film I have not seen called QUANTUM QUEST, but I cannot remember ever seeing him portrayed in any other live-action narrative film. Why did it take so long to have him portrayed in a film? I can only speculate. He perhaps did not have audience recognition value. I imagine another factor might be that it would seem to be impossible to tell his story without a good deal spent on special effects. On the other hand, the makers of FIRST MAN have discovered a way to improve on the visual effects and save a bundle at the same time. For the most part they do not show spectacular space scenes. Most of the viewers have probably seen such views before anyway.
Most of what has to be shot is close-ups and medium shots. It was never stated this way, but the way I would describe the photographic approach would be filming the narrative as if the camera were a drone or a flying insect. When a character speaks the camera is likely close in on the face of the speaker or usually showing only his face and chest. That would save having to construct a lot of set behind the camera subject. This way the viewer feels closer to the subject being filmed.
The best film to compare FIRST MAN with would probably be THE RIGHT STUFF. In that film they take some time building the camaraderie of the astronauts and the parallel camaraderie of their wives. FIRST MAN takes a deeper and more serious view of Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet. Neil has a deeper and darker personality stemming especially from the earlier loss of his daughter to cancer. That loss scarred him for life so in spite of the unparalleled accomplishments of his life he remained gloomy for much of his life. In THE RIGHT STUFF we saw how some of the astronauts learned to have fun when interviewed by the press. The Armstrong we see in FIRST MAN is more introverted and buried in his work. It is probably his way to escape from a world that has not treated him as he would have liked. While APOLLO 13's Jim Lovell took pride in his flying skill. FIRST MAN's Neil Armstrong grieves the time he took a plane too high and bounced it off the atmosphere trying to get it back. He uses the importance of his work as an excuse to feed his introversion and build a wall between him and others. The viewer does get a feel of excitement as the great moments draw near, but Armstrong does not appreciate them.
FIRST MAN is the story of man who brings his own inner darkness to add to the darkness of space. I rate FIRST MAN a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1213641/reference
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/first_man
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2018 Mark R. Leeper