Movie Review: First Man

I’m old enough to remember the moon landing. My parents took me down to City Hall in Toronto where thousands of people gathered to watch the historic events unfold on a giant screen set up in Nathan Phillips Square. Unfortunately, I was at that age where I was too small to see over people’s shoulders and too large to sit on my father’s. My parents sensed I was getting bored (I remember kicking a few adults so that they would move and let me see) so we headed over to their friends’ home where we watched it on their television. It was first time I watched colour TV and the experience probably spurred my parents on to buy one of their own a few months later.

Damien Chazelle’s (LA LA LAND; WHIPLASH) latest film recounts the story of reticent American hero, Neil Armstrong (played by the prettier Canadian Ryan, Ryan Gosling, BLADE RUNNER 2049; LA LA LAND; THE BIG SHORT), the first man to step foot on the moon (assuming you believe the whole moon landing “story”). Based on the 2005 book, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. The Armstrong”, by James R. Hansen, the film places a fair amount of focus on Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy, UNSANE; TV’s THE CROWN) and their children, and his early days at NASA, rather than on the landing and flag planting. (The lack of the latter being seen on screen has led to much jingoistic derision from the same people who no doubt burned their Nike shoes when Colin Kaepernick became the face of that company’s new ad campaign a few weeks ago.) Of course, there are the obligatory scenes where Armstrong and his colleagues demonstrate “the right stuff” as they strap themselves into what was essentially a tin can attached to some rockets. Being an astronaut is definitely not for the claustrophobic and Oscar®-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s (LA LA LAND) numerous tight shots put the audience in the capsule along with those incredibly brave men. The scenes showing the astronauts blasting off are especially well done and all the violent shaking that the men had to endure make you wonder how they didn’t suffer from CTE (the same condition that many now-retired NFL players have) later on in life… or maybe they did have it but no one ever tested them for it.

Gosling does wonderfully understated work portraying the introspective and humble man. Unlike his fellow Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, who even today at age 88 still doesn’t know when to shut up, Armstrong preferred to avoid the spotlight, seeing his work as being akin to solving a puzzle… a very challenging puzzle indeed! His cool-headedness was formally recognised as being the reason why his Gemini 8 space mission didn’t end in disaster. But at the same time, it couldn’t have been easy for Janet to be married to someone who kept his emotions so in check. In one scene just before he leaves home for the Apollo mission, she implores him to sit down with their two sons and discuss the very real possibility that he might not return. (She divorced him in 1994 after 38 years of marriage.)

I rarely mention music in my reviews but I must here. Chazelle collaborator and two-time Oscar® winner Justin Hurwitz created a fabulously powerful score that is haunting at times and turbulent at others. Expect to see his name when the award nominations are published.

FIRST MAN has definitely entered into my rarefied atmosphere of best films of 2018. Whether you need to take a small step or a giant leap to get to the cinema, it’s must see!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, October 11th at 8:30 am HK time!

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