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First Man Movie Review: The Personal Story of a Space Age Hero

Ryan Gosling embodies very private moonwalker Neil Armstrong.

Reviewed by on Oct 10, 2018
Rating: 4 Star Rating

Kidzworld reviews First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the humble yet brave American who stepped first on the surface of our moon.

By: Lynn Barker

First Man starts in 1961 when test pilot and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was flying the experimental X-15 plane to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere just far enough up to see the stars. He and wife Janet (Claire Foy) have a young son and a toddler daughter who is ill. Neil researches her illness hoping for a cure. When this doesn’t happen he cries alone. After trying out for the astronaut corps, he is put on NASA Project Gemini, two man flights that will prepare us for the Apollo series, eventually landing on the moon in 1969. With Janet’s support, he is finally assigned to a moon landing flight.

Neil is a test pilotNeil is a test pilotCourtesy of Universal Studios

Early Tests

Neil Armstrong flies the new X-15 supersonic, sound-barrier breaking plane. It malfunctions but he is able to land it. Meanwhile at home, small daughter Karen struggles with a brain tumor. Neil is a loving dad. When he can’t find a cure, he is devastated but privately. He doesn’t show his emotions. He is accepted into NASA’s Gemini Project (two-man space flights) in 1962 and Janet supports the “adventure”. Both he and astronaut buddy Ed White (Jason Clarke) are picked for the Apollo missions that will one day land on the moon. Janet has a baby son.

Neil goes right back to work after family tragedyNeil goes right back to work after family tragedyCourtesy of Universal Studios

Russian Competition

So far Russia has bested the U.S. in all things space-related. Every time we set up a new flight, they are there first. Determined to be first for once, NASA approves Apollo fights leading up to a moon landing. Neil commands Gemini 8, the first flight to dock two spacecraft together in space but his capsule ends up spinning rapidly in space. Only Neil’s excellent skills as a pilot make the mission a success. He is being considered as commander of a moon mission. Meanwhile, he can’t get over his daughter’s death and even pal Ed can’t help him.

Neil with Ed White and Michael Collins give a press conferenceNeil with Ed White and Michael Collins give a press conference

On the Home Front

Neil hates the publicity (“My Wild Ride in Space”) his mission garners. He hates that kind of attention. He’s just doing his job. Janet needs more stability at home. The couple argues. Meanwhile astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffe and Gus Grissom are chosen for the first Apollo flight. Neil and the other astronauts are jealous. Neil talks briefly about daughter Karen to Ed for the first time.

Janet longs for a normal lifeJanet longs for a normal lifeCourtesy of Universal Studios

Test Site Tragedy

The new Apollo astronauts are inside their capsule on the ground for hours while an oxygen purge test happens. Neil, tasked with getting senators in Washington to support the space program, gets a call. There was a cockpit fire and the three guys are all dead! Janet supports Ed’s devastated widow and children and realizes that Neil could die at any time. The first Apollo flight is postponed for several years as a result. Neil keeps testing lunar vehicles. Some crash and nearly kill him.

Janet tries to comfort Ed's widowJanet tries to comfort Ed's widowCourtesy of Universal Studios

Assigned to the Moon

In 1968, the Apollo 10 flight goes up to orbit the moon but not land. Neil is picked as commander of Apollo 11, the flight that will land men on the moon. With him will be astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas) who will stay in orbit around the moon in the command ship. Janet forces stalwart Neil to sit his two boys down to tell them he may not return. She is tired of giving them the bad news herself.  Neil will step first onto the moon. Is the world and his family ready for this amazing endeavor?

Neil right after stepping onto the moonNeil right after stepping onto the moonCourtesy of Universal Studios

Wrapping Up

First Man is the story of a very private, unassuming man swept up in one of the most notable events in human history. Ryan Gosling is amazing in the role of this quiet on the surface yet privately, emotionally-damaged man. Claire Foy is strong as his wife, who, despite a horrible family tragedy early in the story, is busy supporting and encouraging his efforts while mourning the loss of a “normal” family life.

Neil tells his boys he may not come backNeil tells his boys he may not come backCourtesy of Universal Studios

Close ups of characters’ tense faces and wide eyes help you realize the personal focus of the tale. The sound and sound design is as important as the visual aspects that pull you right in to join the astronauts in early tin-can space capsules complete with rattles, clashing metal and creaks that make you think, any minute the whole thing is going to just fall apart!  Even though history tells us what happens, First Man takes you along for the nail-biting and incredibly dangerous early rides into space. The moon landing is especially tense.

The moonlanding crew of Apollo 11The moonlanding crew of Apollo 11Courtesy of Universal Studios

This film is a much more personal journey than space classics like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 were. It was wise of director Chazelle to focus on Armstrong’s family life and his buddy relationships with other astronauts. Sure the politics (space race with the Russians) and science of the time are touched upon but this is a “people” story that sucks you right into that creaky, analog capsule with the brave (or half crazy) men (at that time only men) who put their lives on the line to boldly go where no man had gone before.

Janet is supportive of Neil's adventuresJanet is supportive of Neil's adventuresCourtesy of Universal Studios

Parts of the movie might seem slow to younger kids but you will never see America’s early space race portrayed with more realism, so wise to hang in there. This is one history lesson that can rock your soul. It will either make you want to join the ranks of these brave adventurers when you grow up or frighten you away but, either way you will really “feel” what it was like every creaky inch of the way to the moon. We go four stars.

First Man Movie Rating: 4

First Man Movie PosterCourtesy of Universal Studios

See First Man in theaters now.

What Do You Think?

See the movie then write comments below on this page or create your own review and post it on your Kidzworld profile page!  Do you have the “right stuff” to go into space? Do you think we should just stay home or always reach for the stars?