Skip to main content

‘First Man’ review

'First Man' turns one small step for man into one amazing movie

Damien Chazelle has a knack for creating movies as beautiful as they are powerful.

First it was 2014’s achingly intense Whiplash, then it was 2016’s contemporary musical La La Land, and now Chazelle displays more of that same filmmaking magic with First Man, a biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong that chronicles the events leading up to the Apollo 11 mission that made him the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

More Movie Reviews

And like both of the aforementioned, Oscar-nominated films he directed before it, First Man is a film that makes the cinematic experience feel fresh in unexpected ways.

First Man won our award for the best movie of the year. Make sure and check out all our other selections for Best Products of 2018.

Directed by Chazelle from a script penned by Academy Award winner Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), First Man casts Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, the aeronautical engineer and test pilot who — along with Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin — touched down on the moon in July 1969 in one of the most-watched moments in human history. Among the supporting cast members in the film are The Crown actress Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet Shearon; Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as Ed White, the first American to walk in space; Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as Deke Slayton, NASA’s chief of the astronaut office; and Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) as Aldrin.

Re-creating one of the defining moments of the last century is a tall order for even the most talented filmmakers, but Chazelle not only manages to capture the public drama of the event but also to present a deeply personal side of the experience from the perspective of Armstrong’s family and fellow astronauts, as well as Armstrong himself. At its core, First Man is as much a film about processing trauma and the nature of obsession as it is a film about flying to the moon, and Chazelle expertly balances the wide range of emotions at play in the film at any given point.

There’s a sense of authenticity that fills every pore of First Man.

In both Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle showed a knack for clever shots that complement a scene in its entirety — the music, the action, and the performances as a whole — and  that’s on full display in First Man, which takes you inside the crafts manned by Armstrong as only his perspective can offer.

From the creaking of stressed metal and seams, to crowded cockpits lit by the glow of myriad sensors and switches, to the ever-present hiss of circulating air and the crackle of radio static, First Man is steeped in a realism that makes every moment hold a sense of imminent triumph or disaster. Chazelle is a master of accentuating details, and First Man offers no shortage of otherwise nondescript background elements that become so much more through his lens.

As for Gosling, he doesn’t stray too far from the sort of performance audiences are accustomed to seeing from him at this point in his career.

The Apollo 11’s famous commander was known for being quiet, humble, and reserved, and that personality plays well to the acting strengths of Gosling, who typically gives his characters a sort of distant quality that makes their every action or word seem carefully considered. It’s a performance that feels a little too familiar for Gosling, but it’s right in line with the personality of the real-world character he’s playing.

Foy also delivers a performance that’s powerful in subtle ways, making the most of the screen time she’s given and her character’s role in Armstrong’s story. Her portrayal of Shearon doesn’t offer the spectacle of an award-winning performance, but it still carries the emotional weight such a role requires.

First Man doesn’t shy away from exploring the technical aspects of the mission.

From the acting, to the visuals, to (unsurprisingly) the sound, there’s a sense of authenticity that fills every pore of First Man.

The film deals with some of the heaviest topics — both physically and emotionally — that Chazelle has brought to the screen in any film so far, and he handles them in a way that makes deeply personal moments resonate as powerfully as the very public moments of Armstrong’s experience.

First Man doesn’t shy away from exploring the technical aspects of the mission and preceding events, either, and does a nice job of blending the tech-speak and aeronautical exposition into the action in digestible, audience-friendly ways.

First Man review
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That First Man can hit so many high marks in chronicling the Apollo 11 mission without resorting to the usual jingoistic, patriotic themes invoked around it speaks volumes to Chazelle’s talents as a filmmaker, to Singer’s script, and to the performances of the cast, which all gel to form an awe-inspiring cinematic experience.

First Man is an extraordinary film that conveys the magnitude of one of mankind’s greatest achievements in a way that makes a moment that occurred 50 years ago and more than 200,000 miles away feel truly personal today.

Editors' Recommendations

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
Like A Man Called Otto on Netflix? Then watch these 3 movies that are just like it
A man smiles in the front seat of a car in A Man Called Otto.

In a time when adult dramas struggle to make a profit, A Man Called Otto became one of the sleeper hits of 2023. In the film directed by Marc Forster, Tom Hanks stars as Otto Anderson, a grumpy widower struggling to cope after losing his wife six months prior. Having lost his will to live, Otto plans to kill himself. However, Otto is interrupted by his clever new neighbor, Marisol (Mariana Treviño). The two form an unlikely friendship, with Otto gaining a new lease on life.

Based on the 2012 novel by Fredrik Backman and the 2015 Swedish film A Man Called Ove, the Americanized A Man Called Otto won audiences over earlier this year, grossing an impressive $112 million worldwide against a $50 million budget. The film has only increased in popularity since its Netflix debut on May 6, as A Man Called Otto has remained in the top 10 for three weeks and counting. If you're looking for more films about unexpected friendships that tug on the heartstrings, then watch these three movies.
Scent of a Woman (1992)

Read more
The School for Good and Evil review: Middling magic
Michelle Yeoh, Charlize Theron, and Kerry Washington stand together in a scene from Th School for Good and Evil.

Adaptations of young-adult fantasy literature have always been a little hit-or-miss, but that hasn't stopped Hollywood from churning them out -- and occasionally putting plenty of star power behind them, too.

Director Paul Feig's The School For Good and Evil is the latest film to bring a popular YA series to the screen, and is based on Soman Chainani's 2013 novel of the same name, which went on to spawn five sequels set in its fairy-tale universe. Along with its core cast of young actors, the film also features an impressive lineup of A-listers in supporting roles, and their presence keeps an otherwise formulaic fantasy adventure entertaining.

Read more
Slash/Back review: The kids are all right (especially when fighting aliens)
Three girls, each armed with different weapons, go looking for alien invaders in a scene from Slash/Back.

Audiences love stories that pit plucky kids against horrible monsters -- whether it's aliens, zombies, ghosts, or various other supernatural threats. There's so much love for these stories, in fact, that it takes a special kind of film to stand out in the crowded "kids vs. monsters" genre these days.

Director Nyla Innuksuk's Slash/Back is one such film, and it delivers a uniquely clever, creepy-fun adventure, led by a talented cast of young actors.

Read more