‘First Man’ is a complicated movie that soars despite its complexity, serious tone

Published Nov 4, 2018 at 9:00am

“Apollo 13” it ain’t.

“First Man” is a complicated movie about the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

It’s complicated in that it can be a frustrating and depressing movie to watch at times, but all of that is building to an awe-inspiring climax.

By the end of “First Man”, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t become an astronaut.

What “First Man” definitely isn’t is the classic 1995 film “Apollo 13”, the Tom Hanks-led tale about the triumph of NASA and the wonders of space.

That Oscar-winner remains a benchmark in films about the historical space program, but “First Man” doesn’t simply apply that family-friendly style to the Apollo 11 mission.

Instead, “First Man” is a very personal, very gripping portrayal of a stoic man determined to see this scientific feat through to the end.

The film opens with the death of Armstrong’s young daughter to childhood cancer and follows him through his career in space travel, from joining NASA to the early experiments and test flights to that fateful moment when — spoiler alert — man walks on the moon.

Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a quiet, thoughtful man, who keeps his emotions to himself, sometimes to the detriment of his friends and family.

He’s haunted by the loss of his daughter, but he’s dedicated to the space program. Medical science couldn’t save Karen Armstrong from cancer, but Armstrong is going to make sure rocket science puts man on the moon.

In that regard, “First Man” is great when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the early space program.

The camera gets into the cockpit of test flights and early space missions, showing the audience the claustrophobia and the equipment in equal measure, complete with groaning metal and rattling engines. It’s a wonder that any of that stuff worked.

Oddly, “First Man” also focuses on the tragedies and the setbacks of the early days of NASA, making for a somewhat depressing film.

Lives were lost in the pursuit of space travel, and the film puts the audience right in the middle of each and every failure.

And each one put a new strain on Armstrong’s marriage to his wife, Janet, played by Claire Foy. She gives a great performance as she struggles to keep her family together when her husband’s life goal could get him killed, and when he’s simply not the type of guy to talk about it.

“First Man” never shies away from being a dark, serious movie.

But all of that tragedy, all of that darkness, is transformed into wonderful, glorious hope and beauty when the film reaches its inevitable climax.

All of that meticulous attention to detail pays off by making the moon landing as intimate as possible, putting the audience right there with Armstrong as he makes his first, fateful steps.

The visuals are exquisite. The sound editing is perfect.

The entire scene is breath-taking cinema.

“First Man” is difficult as a character study, but truly wondrous as a look into the nuts and bolts of NASA, and the majesty of man’s greatest scientific triumph.

NOTE: Sean I. Mills is a staff writer for The Daily Sentinel. You can follow him online at www.romesentinel.com.