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'First Man' reaches for moon just a little too hard

Wening Gitomartoyo
Wening Gitomartoyo

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, October 11, 2018  /  11:32 am


The starting scene of First Man throws the viewer right into a claustrophobic, compact spacecraft. The now-ancient-looking buttons and screens signal that something clearly went wrong. The deafening, clattering sounds make the scene even more terrifying.

It is Neil Armstrong as a young engineer testing a fighter plane, several years before he went down in history as the first man ever to land his feet on the moon. Along with Buzz Aldrin, he was part of the Apollo 11 mission on July 21, 1969. And that’s what the movie intended to focus on: the personal and professional hardships the American astronaut endured.

Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by historian James R. Hansen, the film was directed by Damien Chazelle of La La Land and Whiplash fame, who reunited with Ryan Gosling (as Neil Armstrong) and composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash, La La Land). The script was written by Josh Singer, who also wrote Spotlight and The Post, among others.

On Earth, Janet Armstrong, his wife (Claire Foy), deals with their family and the gnawing uncertainty that her husband might never come home. The handheld closeups often work beautifully in showing her emotions, an admirable feat of the actress more famously known as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown.

Read also: 'First Man' shows Armstrong's view after Moon landing

The film’s moments in space are grand, shown with careful admiration that never feels over the top. The monochrome moon and the vast sky are wrapped in eerie silence and stillness, in contrast with the commotion, the clamorous noise of the engine of the earth.

First Man is a forceful film. It presents the determination, sacrifice and labor humans are capable of. It is patient and persistent in showing the length and lethal failures it took for a man to take that one small step on the moon. It tries to be balanced in presenting America in light of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the unyielding will to venture into space.

It also tries to present an intimate perspective leading to and encompassed within historic moments well-known to most Americans. Those few moments may feel like overreaching, though, with Armstrong’s feelings being overly dramatized. One of the personal griefs of Armstrong is his daughter’s death at the age of 3, caused by a brain tumor. Armstrong was famously reclusive and chose to be low-key for the rest of his career, to the point that he never seemed to address the death even in his family. The film, however, feels overly certain that it was the reason that propelled him to sail the skies. It presents scene after scene that want to herd us into finding a 'humanized' Armstrong when there's no need to. It almost feels like a farfetched and forced concept that in the end weighs the film down from great heights.