First Man (2018)

304 First ManIn today’s world of too few heroes it is understandable that filmmakers turn to the past. Against the distant memory of JFK’s inspiring speeches, we now hear the valueless shrill of modern leaders. With little to celebrate in humanity’s progress, the epic psycho-drama First Man (2018)will resonate with audiences who want to know more of one of mankind’s greatest milestones.

The core narrative is part of world history. In July 1969, as the Cold War and the Space Race reached fever-pitch, USA astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) became the first man to set foot on the moon. What is not widely known is that Armstrong had never recovered from the death of his two-year old daughter five years earlier. He channelled his grief and brilliant problem-solving mind into the NASA space program where bottled emotions were a badge of strong leadership. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) heroically held the marriage together while he found it hard to be husband or father, thus shifting the narrative towards personal tragedy.

First Manis an adventure story without parallel. When you see humans crammed inside steel capsules that reached the moon with pre-digital technology, you realise what a jaw-dropping achievement this was. With boundless views into outer space, we share the astronauts’ astonishment at what they saw. When moon-dust puffs in response to human’s first step, it sends a shiver down your spine. As if this were not enough, First Manalso captures the American mood of the 1960s with detail and authenticity. Massive sums were spent in a global game of space war supremacy at a time of tremendous social unrest. We hear news footage chanting “hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and see protesters calling out the space race as a distraction from the Vietnam War.  We hear lines from a classic Black-American rapper poem crying out about the inability to afford food or medicine for children, yet the US government had a bottomless budget to put “whitey on the moon”.

This film could so easily have slipped into sentimentalism or Hollywood triumphalism. But the combination of brilliant acting, stunning set design, excellent cinematography, and most important, a measured approach to examining human frailty, makes this a standout production. Ryan Gosling excels in his portrait of emotional repression, and Claire Foy steals most of her scenes. At 140 minutes long it could have been better paced, but audiences are unlikely to lose interest in this engaging, exciting, and visually satisfying film.


Director: Damien Chazelle

Stars:  Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy