Movie Review: First Man (2018)

If you’re not into the Halloween Reviews, consider this Science-Fact drama, currently playing in first release.

Trigger Warning: This review contains video embedded at Youtube. Reading some of the comments there may lower your IQ.

Title: First Man

Cast and Crew

Director: Damien Chazelle
Writers: Josh Singer, from the book by James R. Hansen

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong
Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong
Jason Clarke as Ed White
Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton
Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin
Patrick Fugit as Elliott See
Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott
Ciarán Hinds as Bob Gilruth
Olivia Hamilton as Pat White
Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell
Shea Whighamas Gus Grissom
Lukas Haas as Mike Collins
Ethan Embry as Pete Conrad
Brian d’Arcy James as Joe Walker
Cory Michael Smith as Roger Chaffee
Kris Swanberg as Marilyn See
Gavin Warren and Luke Winters as Rick Armstrong
Connor Blodgett as Mark Armstrong
Lucy Stafford as Karen Armstrong
Leon Bridges as Gil Scott-Heron
John David Whalen as John Glenn
Matthew Glave as Chuck Yeager
James R. Hansen as Dr. Kurt Debus
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. as Himself (archival footage)


The biopic follows Neil Armstrong’s life, from the early 1960s to his small step into history.

High Points:

I am old enough to remember the Moon Landing, and my father pointing up at the moon and saying, there are people there, right now. If you let this film, which alternates slow-moving scenes with suspense and awe, do its work, you may feel some version of that feeling. First Man works so well because it doesn’t glamorize its subject matter or deify the astronauts. Humans went to the freakin’ moon– that’s quite enough on its own. We see the technological achievement, but also the earthbound concerns, be they of family members or anti-poverty and other activists. Not everyone was enthralled with the endeavor, and people died along the way. Neil Armstrong himself was brilliant, brave, and incredibly qualified– but also, at times, cold and distant. He feels, but he has learned, too well, to keep those emotions under control.

Low Points:

This isn’t an epic retelling; it’s an introspective one that occasionally opens up to the vastness of space. I liked that– but the approach won’t please all viewers, and, at nearly 140 minutes, First Man burns too slow in places.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 We have a film based on a book based on history, and history that has been made it to film before. First Man takes an approach different from previous excursions into the American space pioneers, such as Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff.

We have some strange echoes of other films, including, during Armstrong’s Gemini run, of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don’t know if that’s art imitating life imitating art imitating life, of if Kubrick just really knew what he was doing when he envisioned future space travel.

Effects: 6/6 Physical effects (including detailed miniatures), CGI, and file footage recreate recent historical events in a stunning fashion. The film doesn’t overplay the space scenes, but they have an impact rarely felt on film. Something akin to reality unfolds.

Certain scenes are not for those easily made motion-sick. Be glad it’s not in 3-D.

Acting: 6/6 Expect Oscar nominations. Ryan Gosling continues to demonstrate he can play anything; Claire Foy is outstanding.

Production: 6/6

Story: 5/6 We have a great historical story, which does not make excessive use of Hollywood tropes. We have some, including a fabricated, though plausible moment during Armstrong’s out-of-range moonwalk. However, the approach means the story free-floats at time.

Emotional Response: 5/6 I am impressed by the ability of this movie to create suspense, even with regards to events with a known outcome.

The moon landing feels like a great moment in history, without the film signaling every moment in epic-heroic fashion. This is about one man’s journey that placed him in that moment.

Could we have gotten closer to Armstrong? Yes– but it appears he wasn’t that sort of man.

Overall: 5/6

In total, First Man receives 36/42

Final Thoughts

1. I’ve been informed, while writing the review, that there is some sort of controversy over the film’s failure to show the planting of the American flag. Let me take a personal stand: it’s a stupid controversy, and anyone who won’t see the movie for that reason alone is behaving foolishly. I’m not sure whether that matters in this retelling, but it’s not as though the film avoids flags altogether, or underplays in any way the American-ness of (and Cold War influence on) the enterprise. Few films have shown the time and place so thoroughly, and the time and place are America during the Cold War. Of course, once the rocket leaves the earth, we’re in a different time and place, and we see that as well.

2. This impressive video explains some of the effects:

6 replies on “Movie Review: First Man (2018)”

  1. One thing that bothered me in the previews was the implication that the engineers and mission management were playing fast and loose with the lives of the astronauts. Specifically the “boys with their toys” line from the preview.

    I feel this is pretty disrespectful of the engineers. I know Apollo One was a terrible accident , but it seems from the preview that the movie really plays up the danger.

    So my question is, does the movie overplay the risks and the concern and search for a villian(engineers) to blame, or did the preview blow that out of proportion?

    • It was definitely dangerous, and the movie doesn’t hide that, but the engineers are well-presented. Armstong, the protagonist, had an engineering background, and the fact that the engineers and technicians and astronauts made this work amount to a technogical miracle. We see that.

      The line in question is uttered by an (legitimately) angry wife, and must be viewed in that context. At that moment, she seeing through the lens of her anger. This movie includes the poem “Whitey’s on the Moon,” too. First Man shows the broader context in which the program occurred, and some people were not proponents.

      I encourage you to see the movie. Expect glory, but not glorification. This is a movie about what actually happened, with the focus on one man’s journey into history.

      My brother is an engineer, and there’s no question Apollo inspired him when we were kids. I will be very interested in his reaction, because I know he will see it. Since I can’t get him to post here, I’ll pass it along if I hear it in a timely fashion.

      • I’m an engineer too, which is why I asked the question. That reaction of his wife in the preview was kind of off putting, one would think the wife of a test pilot and astronaut would understand the risks better. Personally I’d have left that out of the preview.

Comments are closed.