‘First Man’ Explores the Life of Neil Armstrong Leading up to “One Small Step”

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Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man
‘First Man’ imagery courtesy of NBC Universal. Used with permission.

As a long-time space geek, I was incredibly excited to get to see a preview of the new biopic First Man, exploring the life of NASA Astronaut Neil Armstrong. It was a thoughtful film, far from a nostalgic hero flick like the Right Stuff or the crazed adrenaline rush of Gravity. The film follows the life of the first human to step foot on the moon, from his days as a test pilot in the Mojave Desert all the way through his world-famous achievement. It was a good movie and not at all what I expected.

This movie is not about NASA, the Project Apollo program, or the moon landing itself. The story is laser-focused on Armstrong and his life, only including those extraordinary moments in spaceflight history in the context of his personal experience. Several sequences are painstakingly long, quiet, and boring—as many things are in real life.

There are iconic scenes I’ll want to watch again and again. The ride to space atop a converted ballistic missile was incredibly jarring and it is shown with unexpected attention to detail. In fact, all of the sets felt incredibly authentic without drawing attention. (If extreme technical accuracy is important to you, this movie certainly delivers! Check out Robert Pearlman’s post on collectSPACE for an exhaustive recounting of how it was all done correctly.)

Scott and Armstrong aboard Gemini 8 in First Man
Scott and Armstrong aboard Gemini 8 in ‘First Man.’ Courtesy of NBC Universal.

While there were some light moments in the film, the overall tone was somber. All of the big sequences that typically get me excited in space movies were tempered with a high dose of anxiety. The movie constantly reminded me that I wasn’t watching an action hero, I was watching a father and a husband risk his life.

In a recent video, Patrick Fugit (who plays astronaut Elliott See in the film) discussed the major theme of the movie that weaves through the decades of Armstrong’s life:

“What it took to get us [to the moon] is an important legacy. It really cost America, cost the astronauts, [and] cost their families quite a lot. “

I don’t suggest taking the young kids to this one. There is a tiny bit of rough language and plenty of scenes of quiet internal conflict that would make it hard for kids to enjoy. I don’t know that it is a date movie either; the tension in the Armstrong family is complex with no clear solution. I do think it is an important movie, especially for those of us that hope to one day see that black sky ourselves. This serves as a reminder of how hard it can be to accomplish impossible tasks.

If you want to get a glimpse of the cast, check out the trailer below. To get a feeling for the movie, you’ll just have to go see it.

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