Review: ‘First Man’ Takes a Giant Leap for Man, a Smaller Step for Movies

Damien Chazelle’s sweeping and intimate yet underwhelming film revisits the first lunar landing, with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong.

Comments: 58

  1. I saw this last night with my wife.

    It was wonderful.

    The acting was superb, both leads and supporting cast were amazing. The film is shot with an intimacy that makes you feel you were there.

    This is not a special effects driven movie, this gets you in the skin of the people who went there, and the people here who made it possible.

    To me it is one of the best movies I saw all year, and my wife could not stop talking about it.

    We loved it, you will too.

  2. Ask any serious pilot what they want to bring on any flight, and the answer is always "more fuel". I'm surprised the writer of this and other articles doesn't know that, or to my surprise they haven't talked to many pilots seriously about flying. Fuel gives you options as nothing else can...from a pilot with 1,400+ hours.

  3. As an historical figure, I’ve always found Neil Armstrong to be an intriguing but frustrating example. For all of his “One small step for man...” motif, the First Man was remarkably insular about this incredible collective achievement that he personified. From my own perspective, for the sake of mankind, I am bound to wonder why he remained so taciturn when his moment could have been a clarion call for humanity to instantly evolve into something better. Perhaps the enigmatic character portrayed by Gosling was a still water running deep, his engineering and aeronautical prowess matched only by his own intrinsic, deeply personal, and much misunderstood philosophy. Whatever Armstrong’s perspective was, his reservedness helped feed the mantra of lunar incredulity questioning whether anyone at all had set foot on the moon.

    The history of NASA is a sweeping epic, more films need to examine its roots and missions so that our global society can better understand humankind’s potential rather than languishing in an increasingly polluted world. We should be emboldened by movies of this type that bring history and wisdom to the audience of a gauche social media age where so much information is dismissed by the loathsome term “fake news.” Neil Armstrong was not fake news, he was the real deal. A man of few words maybe, but truly the epitome of a hero who risked everything to make one small, modest, step. The night he died, I photographed a beautiful waxing gibbous moon and felt proud.

  4. My wife and I also saw this movie last night. I was glad it didn't fall into the cliche of showing reaction shots in Mission Control and shots of TV announcers proclaiming the events. I saw the stuff on TV when it happened. I was ready for a story I hadn't seen, and "First Man" delivers. It was a story of personal loss and accomplishment played out on a huge canvas but experienced intimately, privately, internally. I don't need another "Apollo 13" or "The Right Stuff". I don't need a docudrama that tries to tell the entire story of the 1960s. I was satisfied with a storyteller who kept it simple. Less is often more.

  5. "Gosling, underplaying with every fiber of his being,"

    Is there any other aspect of his acting?

  6. The US Space program culminating in Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon was to that point the second greatest and heroic achievement of mankind. The greatest, more costly, just as risky in many ways, more tragic, was D-Day and the campaign to liberate Western Europe from thereon. (I know the survivors in the former USSR will disagree, but their horrific struggle didn't pose the same logistical challenges).

    In July, 1969 I was at a division HQ in Vietnam serving as an acting JAG defense counsel. Even before I set foot in that country, I thought it a terrible mistake for the US to have intervened with a huge field army. I was indeed an angry, over-educated lieutenant. When I heard the landing live on AFRVN, saw the picture the next day in Stars and Stripes, I was glad the men had succeeded but I do recall sending a tape back to my parents with impressions of being in Viet and so forth, and at the end I said: oh, and men walked on the moon. The space program seemed a vestige of happier, more confident times. Now, I think of the effort as I said above. Amazingly heroic, brave, ambitious, historic....

  7. @Jay65 Despite Mr. Scott's rather stingy review, I saw the film last night and was very affected by it. Mr. Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal gets it. I would say, the movie is even more interesting, more emotional, and better conceived than either The Right Stuff or Apollo 13.

  8. Armstrong always considered himself an engineer first and foremost. Pilot and Astronaut come after, and Moonwalker was just an interesting direction the overall mission took him in. Expecting some kind of deep introspection in a film about him is unrealistic, given all the books portray him as a brainiac professor who’s focused purely on hardware and system performance. A very, very focused intelligent individual who, given the scale of Apollo, never understood why so much prominence was given to him. After all, to him the Moonwalk was just a little foray enabled by hundreds of thousands of people. I’m sure he’d have been happy landing and then taking off straight away - anything else was just fluff once the hardware was proven. Fascinating man, I was very sad when he died a few years back as I grew up thrilled by Apollo (even though it happened a good decade before I was born).

  9. The moon landings symbolized the pinnacle achievement of the Industrial Age and showed what can be achieved when government and its citizens work together to achieve a common goal. I was 10-years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and it had a profound positive impact on my life and led to a career in aerospace engineering. The NASA and the Apollo Space Program influenced and inspired an entire generation. Now the bad news. As a country we dropped the ball. The next 'moon-shot' should have been a complete transformation of our energy system to renewable sources. If we had that commitment starting with Preident Jimmy Carter, and achieved those objectives, we not only would have a clean environment, but a truly transformed economy and national outlook. The technology that could have been exported and changed the course of the world. The achievement of the moon landing had a larger meaning and we need to get that spirit back.

  10. I saw this last night at a screening and was underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the acoustics of the theater we were in, but we found a good deal of the dialog hard to understand, thus were confused as to what was going on. And while I understand the director/cinematographer's desire to give the audience a view from the astronauts' viewpoint (tight shots of the spacecraft interior; very, very close-ups of shaking faces and instruments) what came across to the audience was a jumbled confusion of flashes of light and sound). I didn't need a special effects extravaganza, but I did need some "context" in the scene to better convey what was going on. It just felt like a bunch of scenes strung together out of thousands by someone who only had a rough idea of the whole story. Yes,"strangely underwhelming."

  11. @Elise I also found parts of the dialog hard to follow, even though I was in an IMAX theatre with excellent sound system and acoustics. That dialog problem was actually a reason that I wasn't going to recommend the movie to a friend.

  12. As someone who remembers watching the moon landing (I was 10) with crystal clarity, and having absorbed the full meaning of the moment and the time period, with my boyhood books on space travel and Apollo and Gemini rocket models, I was transfixed by this film, from start to finish. These guys were heroes in the grandest sense, and I don't expect to experience anything like the first moon landing in my lifetime. Even in a turbulent period of riots, assassinations and Vietnam, NASA and the moon landings offered a tangible optimism for humanity, a faith in technology and our collective focus. And despite all the cynicism of our present time, the 10 year old in me still believes and rejoices in small victories.

  13. "the paradox of space travel, a wildly poetic venture undertaken by men whose survival depended on the prose of memos and the music of calculus." This is inspired writing, Mr. Scott. My compliments.

  14. @Chitra

    I had exactly the same thought. I'm tempted to use the word "gifted" in describing Mr. Scott's writing, his amazing way with words, but that would do a disservice, however true. Mr. Scott's writing shows a plenary grasp of language in all aspects, such as to convey perfectly, and often quite poetically, the most incisive perceptions and observations, suggesting a dedication and love for his craft and subject matter that eclipse what must be quite staggering natural gifts.

    If it seems I'm overstating (I know it'll come off as verbose), it's just that I'm just overwhelmed by how much meaning, and nuance Mr. Scott can pack into a few brief sentences, each phrase a distillation of vast insight.

    Funnily enough, part of me suspects another commenter is right about Mallick and Kubrick as to Chappelle's approach here, that what Mr. Scott faults are actually deliberate and very admirable stylistic choices, going for a more muted, subdued style to reflect the "prose" and "calculus" message of the story, a biopic of an anti-flashy "egghead" whose heroism/achievement had everything to do with his being so different from the standard Hollywood hero.

  15. Maybe the director’s 15 minutes are over? I was never impressed

  16. @André

    They aren't. It's unfortunate you feel that way. He's crazy talented.

  17. The article says, "Neil, for all his competitive drive, is very much a team player, and the moon shot is a collective effort. “First Man” is more sports movie than science fiction...."

    Why would the author call this a work of fiction?

  18. @SteveRQA Exactly. Setting a picture in outer space doesn't automatically make it science fiction. The Apollo missions actually happened, and they happened long ago.

    "Gravity" wasn't sci fi, either: It depicted an industrial accident with existing technologies, nothing that stretched the technological imagination. The near-earth-orbit equivalent of a mine cave-in.

    For that matter, "The Martian" barely pushed the envelope of what NASA is now capable of. A great movie, but not (in my view) science fiction unless any story involving outer space is science fiction by default.

  19. I went to watch this with a friend, and we both found ourselves transfixed by its majesty. I therefore find it odd that this is the second review from a major outlet to give it a lukewarm review. While Scott mentions "sci-fi", the genre only came to my mind when comparing First Man to wholly fictional works that lack its power. Also of interest to me was how the director, with his first two movies, took a fringe story idea - jazz drumming, and an unfashionable genre - the musical, and filled them with mainstream bombast to the delight of the masses. Yet now, he has made a biopic which could have lent itself far more easily to the general public, and instead infused it with ethereal shades of Kubrick and Malick.

  20. AdobemanAZ says "..The next 'moon-shot' should have been a complete transformation of our energy system to renewable sources." That incisive comment should THE takeaway from any excitement created by this recollection of the Apollo Mission. And the last thing we ought to be doing is devoting significant resource to space while the Earth's health is in the balance. Fix home first then play in space.

  21. At the height of the Apollo program (1967) NASA used 3% of Federal outlays; as a comparison Defense, due to the Viet Nam War, comprised 46%.

    As historic as the endeavor was of landing a person on the moon, it basically involved engineering issues with unique project management requirements; at it’s zenith 400,000 individuals were involved.

    Poverty, famine, education, health etc are worthwhile social, government projects. But they involve social issues, which are considerably more complex.

    If you wait to “fix” these social issues before undertaking other challenges, like the hunan space program, you will wait...forever.

  22. @operadog

    Solving complicated problems in space ended up adding to our technologies here at home. Both go hand in hand.

  23. I saw First Man and was not disappointed. An immersive, serious experience about a highly intelligent reserved man capable of great courage and focus. Sadly, as I left the theater my lingering thought was "that's the last time we were smart."

  24. Before graduating from high school in 1967 and on into college, it seemed we all knew the astronauts names, the Wilbur and Orvilles of Space. I chose Purdue because it seemed like it extruded astronauts somewhere on campus. With fellow ROTC middies, we collectively watched the moon landing from the Officer’s Club bar in Virginia, a Purdue Navy pilot of all things. I admit it, I was drinking under age. See, “Bart” - it didn’t even hurt.
    Space flight is no less challenging today, but I’m not sure youngsters, much less the public are as aware. Reality TV has replaced reality.

  25. I clearly and vividly remember the "Moon Race" what a time to be alive. The Cold War was fought in space and the United States won. There were large swings in public sentiment when for instance Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space, the evening news focused on this as a major failure by US.

    Efforts were redoubled, safety became secondary . Chaffee, White and Grissom burned to death in their Apollo capsule. Fabulous highs followed the dreadful lows. Perseverance , sweat, toil and finnally Apollo 11.

    NASA aimed high, they hit their mark and then came the shuttle. The biggest waste of time, effort and money. The shuttle program virtually destroyed our manned program singlehandedly. For forty years the US and other space faring people have wasted their time, and our money on low Earth orbit science. Leaving our little blue ball was shelved for doing what they could with the burdensome Shuttle program demands and the confinement of low Earth orbit.

    I am happy to see exploration commencing from private enterprise as our space agency seems to have withered.

  26. Underwhelming is the word I'd use to describe the entire premise. We've covered the subject of Apollo in almost exhaustive cinematic detail already. The only thing missing is a Ken Burns documentary. I'm not sure why Chazelle felt compelled to execute what was inevitably a bad idea from the start. You could certainly retell an element of NASA exploration in a new and interesting way. A personal drama about Neil Armstrong is a bad starting point though.

    Speaking of Chazelle, I actually had a lengthy discussion about "La La Land" just last night. We both agreed the film was more broadly applauded than the production actually deserved. While a successful modernization of the musical genre is appreciated, the film left us both feeling particularly underwhelmed. I'd have to re-watch the film to pinpoint the exact elements left wanting. However, suffices to say, I don't think the film was best in year or even best in kind.

    Saying this aloud in public is near sacrilege in popular culture. People give you weird looks. However, consider the other titles on the modern musical genre playlist. There's the hyperkinetic "Moulin Rouge!" or the more traditionally staged "Chicago." I would even throw "Sing Street" onto the list of more successful modern musicals than "La La Land." A film coincidentally released in the same year as Chazelle's film and, in my opinion, greatly under appreciated.

    Basically, Chazelle's films are good but not great. I wouldn't expect anything more than average.

  27. @Andy Yeah, what are we doing watching a film about a WHITE man? All he did was sit on a rocket that could have exploded on takeoff, then flew 250,000 miles to another world (where the craft could have been hit with space debris or exploded the way Apollo 13 almost did) and then skillfully avoided a crater / bolder field and then landed with 16 seconds of fuel left. A film about humans overcoming huge challenges to land on another world for the first time? Who would appreciate that?

  28. You'll have to excuse me, but I'm failing miserably at locating where Andy referenced race in his comment.

    Nope.... still can't find it.

  29. Sports metaphors?

    It's not sports or science fiction. It's about aspirations of mankind.

  30. Can we please acknowledge once and for all, that Neil Armstrong muffed his first words on the moon. "One small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind." This is what he actually was supposed to say. Why? Because that statement actually makes sense. Just like the Apollo program, his first words on the moon were a mistake.

  31. True. But over time the meaning assigned to words is superseded by the meaning given. The lines, even fluffed, remain very powerful because of the achievement.

  32. Ryan Gosling ..two and none. Give that man an Oscar

  33. I was bored and unengaged, but I have always been captivated by the space program, so the movie was a flop to me. Won't watch again, which is my stamp of approval.

  34. I found this film a profound and profoundly moving exposition of the Apollo space programs and the "first" man at its centre. I knew very little about Neil Armstrong before I saw this film but I am frankly awestruck by the bravura of a director and an actor who at every point refuse to make the arc of this astonishing achievement - all politics aside - into something as simple as entertainment for the masses, like other similar space films (The Martian, Gravity, even Apollo 13). It was the noises of the film - the groaning of metal, gears, engines, the terrifying cacophony of out-of-control machinery - that first signals the film's focus on the sheer difficulty and improbability of the moon missions and what they required in terms of intellect, bravery and stoicism, of their participants. The deeply reserved performance by Ryan Gosling further intensifies the feeling that First Man is not interested in the sexier and more audience-friendly narratives of space conquest that we typically see onscreen. I can't help feeling that today the world badly needs a reminder of the power of intelligence, seriousness, personal sacrifice and determination and this film delivers that in spades. For its refusal to endorse simplistic and jingoistic notions of human history and American exceptionalism and in its constant deflection and inversion of epic and heroic narrative tropes, this film deserves far higher praise.

  35. The trauma of a young child's death is so beyond the comprehension of those of us fortunate enough to never experience it. For the Armstrong family it's so much more than moving on, though move they do. Scott's review of the film distills Janet's condition, similar to my feeling at the end of the film. Exhausted.

  36. An event like this is akin to the challenges of the biopic of any fundamental influencer of our perceived history. Still, I saw the movie last night, and having loved The Right Stuff, this is the first time I felt the raw danger of the endeavour of the mission - even though I knew the failures well - I understood them in a way that meant something to me. That’s an achievement, particularly when you imagine a film been seeking the future by people whose parents were born at a point before they knew what it all meant.

  37. It was a well directed movie but it glanced over a lot of stuff from the book. Neil Armstrong was a small country farmboy from the midwest that became a pilot for the Navy. Pus Karens death seemed to be just a background thing in the movie.

    I did find it interesting that movie was filmed handheld using Super 16mm cameras with telephoto lenses since it was heavy filmgrain with close ups but then the moon scene was crystal clear steadicam with IMAX cameras.

  38. Disappointing, even in IMAX. Unengaging. Not recommended.

  39. A story that shows the human side of first astronauts and their flaws. It is a compelling story of individuals living heroic yet humanly flawed lives. it is a very good movie- better than much that is playing.

  40. I would seriously recommend that this NOT be seen on the largest screen possible. I've just returned from a full-blown IMAX theatre, and I'm still queasy. And it's not because of the capsule scenes - having a "you are there" aspect to the noise and disorientation was unique and effective. No, it's everything on the ground - the choice of using enormous, grainy "Scenes From A Marriage" closeups on hand-held cameras made the experience, to me, very unpleasant to watch. I do believe I'll have a more positive reaction to the film as a whole when I see it again on video.

  41. @David D. For me, seeing this on the big screen allowed me to feel more of a part of the experience, and that aspect I really enjoyed. Then again, I didn't see it on an IMAX. But I agree with you - there were some scenes recorded on a hand-held that were so shaky it was distracting. The shakiness made sense in some scenes to demonstrate the bumpiness/turbulence of the journeys in space, but not so much in a scene where characters are just casually chatting.

  42. That Kennedy speech is used in every space epic the same way that every 60s doc shows the stupid flower children holding hands and dancing. They should just insert a handwritten sign saying: Speech available on YouTube. Also that flower children clip should be banned forever from any reference to LSD and the 60s.

  43. We really blew it. We should have been terraforming Mars the last 40 years. Instead we manufacture, sell, and use weapons all over the globe. What a waste of the big brain evolution gave us, not to mention the blood and treasure. Maybe after humans are gone the rats will eventually pick up the space program again. I wish them good luck!

  44. I finally saw "First Man", telling myself Ryan Gosling could be a convincing Neil Armstrong. No such luck. Instead of still waters running deep, it felt more like what you see is what you get, which wasn't much. The early sequences were thrilling, giving the audience a taste of astronaut training, but the emotional scenes were almost embarrassing. The last scene posed a problem for me: he looks down, and his wife has to practically get down on her knees to look up at him. It seemed the director was saying all was right with the world when everybody knew their place.

  45. "First Man" may have been Damien Chazelle's cinematic moonshot, so to speak, but it missed its target and ended up in a seemingly unending, perpetual orbit around a flat, atonal personality, an emotional dark side of the moon.

  46. A child of the late 50’s, the space program was big news in our house, every mission celebrated. This movie helped me remember those
    days and I don’t feel the need to dissect the role of NASA or other social movements of the time.
    I found this to be a compelling story, well acted, the use of great special events and sound made for a gripping couple of hours.
    That’s entertainment to me.....

  47. Another critique: The Hidden Figures were hidden again. For being "shrewdly up-to-date" First Man missed the update that there were women mathematicians and engineers, and men and women of colour and diverse nationalities working on the aeronautics and aerospace program. This film had only one person of colour that I noticed - a man wearing headphones in the control room. The female characters were noble, wise, grieving wives, polite secretaries and a dying daughter. That didn't seem very updated to me.

  48. This doesn't interest me in the slightest. After seeing hidden figures and all the women who helped space exploration and not a mention...nope not interested. The time for these movies are over.

  49. Beautifully written review, hits all the marks.

  50. I am sorry to say but I have no interest in seeing "First Man". Not because of any of the manufactured outrage and controversy coming from all sides. I feel no pull towards it whatsoever.

    I had a completely different experience when "The Martian" came out a few years ago.

    Instead I watched "A Star Is Born", which I thought was a wonderful movie and a beautifully told story. The music alone is worth everything, especially how it ties the whole film and the arches of its characters. Though the fourth iteration of this story, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who have magnetic on screen chemistry) as well as the rest of cast, shine in it.

    In these times we live in, " A Star Is Born" is what I would call, therapy for the soul...

  51. @loco73 I saw both movies on the same day - A Star is Born was good, I enjoyed it, but not in the same league as First Man. Chazelle is a brilliant director and Cooper is making a good start. Do yourself a favor and see First Man.

  52. I just wanted to also add that perhaps some of the lacklustre performance of the movie might have to do with the state of NASA and the space program these days. They can’t even fly their own astronauts to the International Space Station. They have to rely on the Russians. This is the result of years of cuts and hatred for science.

    And after the accident last week with the Soyuz capsule, even that is out. Now the astronauts on the Space Station are stuck there indefinitely pending an investigation.

    They are trying to rely on the private sector to fill the void, but it is as of yet largely unreliable as a replacement.

    Space used to be about risk taking, bold moves and efforts. I think that the only thing that will re-awaken people’s interest and reignite their imagination would be sending a manned flight to Mars and eventual steps for colonization…

    No wonder “The Expanse” (novels and TV series) is more exciting than the reality of our current level of space exploration…as well as "First Man"


  53. And I never understood why someone has to reply on someone else's comment and feign outrage. It is my right to comment and it is your right to ignore it...

  54. I saw the movie today and was very impressed! Exhilarated! I remember the actual events vividly.

    The emotional arc of the story helped make a real connection with the characters.

    The special effects were realistic, never overdone like most of today’s movies.

    Ryan Gosling gave a very convincing portrayal of a man focused on his work, to the detriment of his family.

    My only quibble is that the mesmerizing Claire Foy was utterly wasted in a minor role.

  55. I saw the movie yesterday and was astounded by the possibility it offered me to live the profound anxiety, discomfort and ultimate thrill of space travel. That first scene when Armstrong is rebounding on the surface of the atmosphere is overwhelming. I also find the wide scope of different cameras used (from 16 mm to IMAX), the contrasts of extreme close-ups on faces and hands and the magnitude of the universe, very effective. One can feel how Chazelle inspired himself from Kubrick and Malick but also how his filming is the fruition of a vision that is very much his own and which demonstrates his extraordinary talent. I also very much appreciated his fine, sensitive manner of portraying Armstrong's family life.

  56. After Whiplash, this is not the career path I expected from Chazelle. I'll reserve judgement on this movie itself, but I want more like Whiplash, less like La La Land.

  57. I grow weary of movie reviews, by we readers, where we feel compelled to layer onto the production all our personal grievances or our own interpretation of what history is, or should be, important. I am much more in the camp of seeking to take the film on its own terms and see it as a work of very commercial. high end story telling. For me then, it was a great story, told reasonably well that respected its subject in terms that were both hugely grand and intimate.

  58. I can't believe they did that to memory of Neil Armstrong! This movie make it look like Neil was somewhere far on the Autism spectrum. The personal aspects of his life seem as if relayed from the perspective of a bitter family. The same goes for Buzz's portrayal. This movie attempts to give the "Dunkirk" treatment to the Moon Race, focusing on what the participants must have seen and heard. It does a good job of making you terrified and wondering how people fly in those crazy contraptions but the movie seems long, too quiet and boring punctuated by moments of staged terror. It's definitely not the right stuff.