First Man is Dunkirk in space: Come for the history; Stay for the anxiety.
This is not a NASA film. This is the Neil Armstrong story, a man emotionally beaten by this Earth, until he was tough enough to leave it.
The film begins with Neil Armstrong entering the edge of space from inside an X-15. Immediately, the plane spirals from beauty into chaos, as the experimental aircraft begins bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere rather than enjoying a smooth re-entry.
Director Damien Chazelle uses the most frenzied of shaky camera work, with angles so close to Ryan Gosling’s face that we can feel his skin crawl.
Neil Armstrong found no thrill in cheating death; he just didn’t respect it. The loss of his daughter left him emotionally disconnected. NASA considered Armstrong’s muted responses the “Right Stuff” for commanding critical missions. Sadly, he had all the “Wrong Stuff” for a happy home.
The film continues using claustrophobic shaky camera work during all of Armstrong’s tense encounters with his wife. Janet Armstrong is played by Claire Foy, who is already an early contender for best actress. Her monologue shatters the silence of the film, as she tries to restore some of Armstrong’s humanity before he walks out on his home to go walk the moon.
Damien Chazelle shot much of the film on 16mm, giving much of the biopic a home-movie feel. The film grain also allowed the director to use historical NASA footage in the windows of the spaceships. Outside space footage is all new, using stationary wing angles similar to Interstellar. You might be reminded of the Interstellar “Docking Scene” by the First Man’s un-docking Scene. This is just part of the film’s incredible Gemini 8 sequence, which will leave you feeling like a fidget spinner.
The actual moonwalk has a dream-like quality and completes the emotional arc of Neil Armstrong. He didn’t want to be defined by tragedy anymore, but by his accomplishments.
In closing, we learn the moon offered Neil Armstrong peace, closure, and a step back into mankind.