Going into this film completely blind — no trailers watched, nary a thought spent on the event of the first moon-landing, which is to say I was the perfect tabula-rasa audience member — I was pretty much bowled over by First Man.
I didn’t think there would be such a strong emotional core at the heart of a movie about going into space. I was not expecting to feel the nitty-gritty of space travel — the claustrophobic spaces, tiny airplane windows, complete lack of mobility while you are fully strapped into your seat just watching the sky outside change, while monitoring the dials and needles in front of you for any sign of things going wrong — so opposite from what the idea of space conveys: an expanse, wonder, a whole and alien world. Danger: of course. Isn’t that why we’re here? But to feel the actual human cost of it, that’s a different matter.
And with no less — arguably even more — important a role stands Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet, played breathtakingly by Claire Foy of The Crown fame. She is the reason the whole structure stays together — the family, Neil’s mental state. She faces the possibility of losing her husband every day, and holds it together regardless: we see her superhuman restraint in choosing not to pepper him with wholly understandable questions or appeals for reassurance, because she knows that whatever answers she seeks, he does not have. When he goes on an extravehicular activity, she is pinned to the radio transmitting his updates to the space station, all the while handling their two children all on her own — these updates, filled with technical numbers of the spacecraft’s status, provide more insight than any answer he can give directly to her. When the radio cuts off, she rushes down to the space station and demands that the staff turn it on again, uttering the truest line: “All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control. But you’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control!” On the very last night before Neil sets out to the moon, she finally makes him confront the side of him he has spent the whole movie, decade escaping: the impact on the family if he dies — or to generalize, facing up to his feelings towards loss.
For Neil, played just as admirably by our favourite heartthrob Ryan Gosling, the space mission has become more than just a test of humanity’s limits, or an expedition to another frontier. It has become a symbol of what has been lost — his teammates’ lives, in the course of this attempt; his daughter’s life, as the initial impetus for him to apply for the program just for a change. He barrels on with a single-minded intensity, determined to reach the moon at all cost — even his own life — for the alternative, failure, would mean that the personal losses he has suffered would have been in vain. Metaphorically carrying the ashes of his loved ones — and literally carrying his daughter’s bracelet — he views the moon as the only possible resting place for these last relics; it was also the only place he could come to terms with his own grief, and let go of its relentless grip.
And yet despite — or perhaps because of — the emotional baggage and the backdrop of loss, the moments in which we first see the moon are filled with utter wonder: the magic of space made concrete, the surreality of a place eternally imagined, outside of the bounds of atmosphere. The landing, so similar to that of a flight we take to another country, is at the same time brimming with a strangeness from the surface it is trying to settle on: a white, powdery expanse, against absolute black. The camera lingers lovingly on craters visible to the 360 view, as if to remind us: there is no way to tabulate this cost-balance sheet. This sense of wonder, this actualisation of possibility, sheer inspiration, can never be quantified.
Let me not forget to add that the music by Justin Hurwitz was absolutely spellbinding. It catches you on a wave and transforms the movie into an aesthetic experience, so much that the 141 minutes of the movie did not feel like so.
Imma giving it 5/5 for introducing me to space magic rooted by a strong core of humanity, in a perfect blend of music, pacing, and cinematography.