Cinematic Releases: One Small Step: First Man (2018) - Reviewed

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand.

--Neil Armstrong 

How do you humanize someone who has been to the stars? When a person's achievements have transcended them as an individual it's hard to conceptualize them as a living, breathing human being. Damien Chazelle has achieved this with his Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) biopic First Man (2018) which is a look at the events in Neil's life leading up to his historic walk on the moon.

The film begins with a personal tragedy in Neil's life, an event which haunts him in different ways throughout the narrative. Gosling is his usual stoic self, and he plays Neil as a rather reserved man albeit with an intense drive and passion for his goals. He has set his sights on the moon and nothing, not even his family, can distract him from his quest. 

His wife Janet (Claire Foy) is fantastic though a bit underdeveloped. She is forced to watch helplessly as her husband is put into dangerous situations, and she often vents her frustration at Neil's inability to provide her or their children the emotional support they need. In real life, they ended up getting a divorce and you can see the hints of their troubled marriage in the film as well. It could have benefited from a deeper examination, but that might have been detrimental to the excellent pacing.

If there is one thing that is Chazelle's strength, it's his use of sound and music in his films. First Man has an absolutely gorgeous score and the sound design is fantastic. Composer Justin Hurwitz was utilized again by Chazelle and his unique approach adds to the atmosphere immensely. The score is a mixture of traditional orchestral music and some electronic touches, specifically heavy use of the warbling tones of the theremin, famously used in old '60s sci-fi flicks. Oddly, it doesn't sound goofy in this context, more mysterious and even plaintive at times. The sound design for the spaceship sequences and the moon walk are outstanding with the creaking and scraping of the ship giving way to eerie dead silence at any given moment. The tension is excruciating at times because the lives of the astronauts depend on thousands of mechanical parts working without a hitch. It's rare to see a film that syncs the action on the screen with the sound so perfectly.

While there are some incredible visuals in First Man, particularly in the final act, the bulk of the film is depicted much more intimately, almost documentary style, with lots of close shots and handheld camera work. It's this focus on the little moments that sets this apart from other space exploration films--the idea that behind all these historical events are real people, with lives and aspirations. Neil Armstrong was known as a humble man, disinterested in accolades or pomp and circumstance. It seems fitting that this film encapsulates that ideology, and shows that through giant acts we can influence both humanity in a larger sense but accomplish things on a personal level. Throughout the film, the so-called Space Race is merely background noise to the interpersonal relationships between the astronauts and their emotions. Some may find this lack of focus on the politics unsatisfying, but I found it refreshing. It was indeed "one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind". Not just Americans, but for all of us on the entire planet.

--Michelle Kisner