Getting to Know the “First Man” On the Moon

By Lucia Arreola

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” These legendary words always spark an image for people of the famed moon landing, though few know what had to happen before the event in order to make it possible.

Most people know the general story of Neil A. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, but his entire story had never been taken to theaters before, until now. Director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling team up again after their success with “La La Land” to deliver a biographical drama film starring Gosling as the titular character, Armstrong.

It’s been nearly fifty years since Armstrong’s journey to the moon, but it has been more than fifty-five years since the whole journey began. The movie goes from 1961 to 1969, speeding through the dates the whole time, like a rocket tearing through the atmosphere. The joltiness of the camerawork during takeoff perfectly highlights the danger involving space travel, while the still, silent shots during the space scenes show why it is worth the risk.

Perspective is a recurring theme in Chazelle’s “First Man”, from a crescent moon to a crescent earth and everything in between. Before seeing the film, the general public might not know about the death of Armstrong’s young daughter due to cancer, which opens the door on Gosling’s range of emotion while playing Armstrong. We are able to see the astronauts not only as names and gears of a mission, but real people, allowing us to guess at what might have been really going on in their heads. Throughout the movie, we see sides of Armstrong never seen before, from stoic anger at NASA’s negligence to tragic sobbing after his daughter’s death to subtle humor when around friends.

“First Man” truly captures the first-person perspective so that traveling to space is no longer portrayed as a distant exhilarating thrill ride but an up-close and personal perilous task. Upon discovering that Armstrong is chosen for a mission, stellar acting from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy (who plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet) realistically shows both the excitement and fear that goes into space travel, since what most people do not want to talk about is the life and death situations astronauts go through every day.

The director clearly wanted to focus on the emotion and story behind the takeoff, which is seen as a brittle tin can being shot into space like an arbitrary cannon blast. NASA is no longer this fantasyland full of geniuses who can do no wrong but a facility comprised of real people with personal lives. Watching one scientist casually play an instrument in celebration of the mission truly reverses one’s thoughts of what an employee at NASA is “supposed” to be and instead introduces the idea that Foy’s character brings up in one particularly emotional scene: they are all experimenting these tests for the first time. Every astronaut is a guinea pig seen as expendable when they are really grown men, with wives and children, who don’t deserve to die; yet, they climb into the rocket anyway not for exploration’s sake but because they all have their own ideas on why reaching the moon is necessary. President Kennedy’s words were “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too,” a quote used within the movie itself.

Chazelle also employs symbolism throughout the film, from a child’s bracelet to the moon itself-the former being a memento of Armstrong’s daughter and the latter being this scary, seemingly unachievable dream that eventually becomes more real with every scene. It can also be construed as the trophy the winner will earn at the end of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. While other events are happening throughout the movie, they are shown as little more than parenthetical scenes to remind the audience what occurred as opposed to being the main focus of the film.

“First Man” revealed Armstrong’s story in its entirety-no small feat-accomplished with Chazelle’s direction and strong acting from the cast. Perspective is questioned, emotions are explored and the moon is completely new to people who watch this film. It becomes not only a symbol of night but a symbol of what America was able to accomplish and may still be able to journey to in years to come.