By John H. Foote
When I saw this masterful film for the first time at TIFF, I believed with every fiber of my being it would dominate the Academy Award nominations, ten, eleven, twelve nominations felt right. Rave reviews greeted the film; it seemed to have everything a film needed to be a major hit and an awards contender.
But then audiences did not come! A great film and they stayed away.
Last Tuesday, First Man received just four nominations, and not a single major nomination. Not even Claire Foy, expected to be a Best Supporting Actress nominee was snubbed. The magnificent score was ignored, as was the perfect screenplay. By nominations day it was expected that Ryan Gosling might not be nominated, and he was not, but I held fast to the belief the Academy could not ignore how good the film was. But they did. It was ignored. In fact a weaker film, Bohemian Rhapsody was nominated for Best Picture while First Man was not.
Hero and patriot are words tossed around easily sometimes. They should mean something very special, something which inspires awe and majesty. The United States has not had much to be proud of these days with a buffoon as their President, so leave it to the movies to give Americans something to be proud of, once again. This is very much a film about heroes and patriots, men who made great sacrifices for their country in the name of space exploration.
Like being strapped into a claustrophobic space capsule, sitting on top of enough explosive power to level all towns or cities close by. There are three of you, in very close quarters, each with a specific job to do, each well trained, but with the knowledge anything could go wrong, because anything has gone wrong in the past. The rocket thrust is powerful enough to slam you back into your seat so you cannot move, the speed so great you might pass out, the juggling and rocking of the rocket extraordinary, rough, powerful, as though it might suddenly come apart. If you survive that, the launch through the atmosphere of the earth, space is much smoother, with its zero gravity, ice cold temperatures, and vastness.
To endure that, you are a hero. To do that for your country you are also a patriot, but first and foremost you are, and always will be a hero.
When President John Kennedy called for the race into space, the government funded NASA and space exploration began with manned flights into the enormity of space. We had no idea what we might encounter; we just knew that since the days of the cave men, our species had stared up at the moon, towards the heavens always wondering what was there.
The moon hangs in the sky throughout this film, taunting us it seems, to come to it. When Neil Armstrong’s dying daughter points to it in glee, could he have ever known he would one day be the first man to set foot on that dead planet? I think not. It feels sometimes that the moon is calling to him.
Damien Chazelle, who won the Academy Award for La La Land (2016) as Best Director, pushes the envelope of his talent here, approaching this space epic differently than any other director ever has. Chazelle tells his story from the point of view of the astronaut, focusing on what they would see, what they would experience. There have been other great films made about space travel, The Right Stuff (1983) told, boldly the story of the Mercury astronauts, while Apollo 13 (1995) told the story of how they got the men back from space after a terrible accident. Gravity (2013), a fictional film, brilliantly directed and acted was an exciting adventure about a woman’s smarts getting her home. First Man is history, it is an historical account of what happened before, during and after Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface for the first time.
First Man is an astounding movie, exactly the movie America needs right now to remind them of what they can accomplish when they work together.
Little is known about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) because he wanted it that way. After the death of his two year old daughter, who fought a terrible battle with cancer, he withdrew into himself, doing his job, being a good husband and father, but a deeply quiet, thoughtful man. He applied for the NASA program and got in, his engineering skills second to no one, but then watched as one by one his best friends were killed in various tests. Finally asked to fly a craft into space, to dock, he agrees, and is nearly lost when the craft goes into a spin. Showing a cool head, he rights the craft, though realizes he was a heartbeat away from certain death. Having displayed such a cool demeanor under brutal pressure he is selected to command Apollo 11, and become the first man to set foot on the moon’s surface. The enormity of what he is about to do is not lost on Armstrong, but he believes it best to treat it all just like any other mission, the goal being to come home. Before 11 takes off, he does hundreds of hours of training, going through scenarios both good and bad, all to test his resolve. Never once does he panic, instead thinking out the problem and executing the solution.
His wife, portrayed by the gifted Claire Foy is understandably terrified, and makes him tell his young sons he might not be coming home. When NASA turns off the radio in her home that allows her to hear the flight, she storms to the control room and demands it be turned on, calling them out for not knowing enough before sending these men, these fathers and husbands into space.
Crammed into the capsule the three men blast off into the great beyond, higher and higher into space, farther than anyone has ever gone before. Within a couple of days, the bright moon they beheld from earth for so many years is below them, vast, huge, with earth now the tiny planet hanging in the sky. The landing is rough, as the craft sinks into the powdery surface of the planet.
“The Eagle has landed” they report back to NASA to the cheers of those on earth.
And then it begins. Armstrong opens the hatch to the planet below. He walks down the ladder to the dusty surface of the moon and finally plants his foot on the planet. Stepping down onto the moon he states, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We see what he sees. Miles of dusty, lunar surface, the earth hanging in the sky as the moon did when they were on earth. Millions around the globe, regardless of nationality watched this piece of history being made on television, hearing his words, watching the images. For those moments, while Armstrong and Aldrin roamed about the planet mankind was united as one, we had accomplished this. It was extraordinary. I was ten and remember watching with my father and brothers and sister. We stared out the window at the moon wondering what they were thinking as they stared back at us, wondering how many other families were doing the very thing we were doing.
Chazelle brilliantly chose to allow the audience to see the film through the eyes of the astronauts, so what they experience and see, so do we. I had no idea of the intense claustrophobia of the space capsules that they were literally crammed in side by side. I would lose my mind. What they see, we see, which gives one an extraordinary experience completely from the point of view of the astronaut. It was a bold, courageous directorial choice.
Ryan Gosling is outstanding as Armstrong, the death of his child forever closing him off, he internalizes his emotions so much his wife knows and understands inherently it is up to her to feel them for him, for them both. Always thinking, always aware of what is happening, Gosling can be seen thinking throughout the film, and the enormity of being the first human being to place their foot on another planet, even a dead one, must have been an astounding burden for just one man. Gosling radiates a deep intellect, so much so that the journey to the moon for him becomes almost a meta-physical experience. His moments alone on the lunar surface, leaving behind a piece of his heart are quietly heartbreaking. The actor should have earned his third Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his fine, thoughtful, and heartfelt performance.
As his wife, Claire Foy is, as expected quietly spectacular. Feeling the emotions her husband cannot feel, she is often the spokesperson for the family, but not even she can always get through to Neil. Her frustration at this is overwhelming, yet the love she feels for him is always apparent. In her own unique way she is on the moon with him.
In the great film Terms of Endearment (1983), Jack Nicholson portrayed an astronaut who wondered why the men who walked on the moon never got together and talked about it. How many are there? Less than a dozen I think, but what was it like to be Armstrong, to be the very first? Can you imagine being in on those conversations? What it felt like to look up and see earth hanging in space, a magnificent blue orb so far away, yet reachable in a couple of days.
He went through the rest of his life in relative isolation, by choice, unable to handle the pressure that being first man placed upon his shoulders. For a few moments after stepping onto the dusty surface of the moon, Armstrong was the master of all he surveyed, the only human being in existence to stand on that dead rock. How extraordinary it must have felt to do that, to look up and see his own planet, blue, hanging in the sky as the moon hangs over the earth.
Every aspect of the film is perfection, from the casting, direction, right through to the art direction, costuming, and especially those magnificent visual effects. Damien Chazelle should have been nominated for his second Academy Award as Best Director and he should be the winner.
A film for the ages.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.