Space exploration movies and TV events based upon real missions, not surprisingly, have often made "the mission" the thrust of the plot.
First Man goes a different route. It dares to focus on Neil Armstrong, the man at the center of the Apollo 11 mission, and what made him tick. It shows the familial struggles the man dealt with leading up to the mission and, most strikingly, his viewpoint (through his visor) as a bunch of workers clad in white packed him into sardine cans and blasted him off into space. It's an amazingly intimate movie considering the subject matter.
Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) doesn't ignore the details of NASA's build up to eventually planting Armstrong's feet on the lunar surface. In fact, the film is one of the most scientifically intriguing films I've seen when it comes to what astronauts go through and the mechanics of a space launch. What it also manages to be is a moving, often haunting study of the sacrifices and enormous pain Armstrong went through to beat the Russians to the moon landing punch.
I confess to not knowing Armstrong (Ryan Gosling in top form) lost his young daughter to cancer in 1962, seven years before his legendary flight. Appropriately, that event is as central an occurrence as the moon landing in this movie.
This film is about Armstrong's sacrifices, hardships and the enormous psychological and physiological tortures he went through in that decade leading up to Apollo 11. In turn, it's a testament to every man and woman who has risked their lives—and left families and histories behind on the big blue marble—in the name of the space race.
Claire Foy is the epitome of patience as Janet Armstrong, who must tend to her mischievous son as the sound from a NASA intercom drifts through her house, a sound letting her know that her husband is currently surviving his latest mission.
While the film does contain some sequences showing the exterior view of rocket launches, Chazelle brilliantly stages many of the launches from Armstrong's point of view. The camera violently shakes, with the view outside of a small window being the only thing we see during much of the liftoffs, as if we are seeing the action from inside Armstrong's helmet.
The final moon landing has Armstrong immersed in total silence as he watches Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) hop away from the lunar module. The film, in all, cost about $60 million to make, and that's like an indie budget nowadays. It's to Chazelle and his crew's credit that it looks like it cost at least twice as much.
To be honest, you might find yourself justifiably bummed out for much of its running time. Besides the death of his daughter, Armstrong lost some good friends at NASA, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who all died horrific deaths during an Apollo 1 test. There was also Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), who died in a test flight crash preparing for Gemini 9.
Armstrong was notorious for his quiet and stoic demeanor. Gosling, working with a script by Josh Singer, shows us a calm, quiet and, most importantly, focused man who kept looking forward no matter what forces tried to drag him back. The film depicts a trio of near-death experiences, including the film's opening sequence involving a test flight in space, that almost took Armstrong out. No matter how many times he had to crash or eject, Armstrong endured with almost impossible strength and reserve that Gosling depicts perfectly.
First Man is not a "Rah! Rah!" movie. It forgoes much of the obvious patriotism and international competition that marked the space race in favor of simply showing us what a dude had to endure to get into one of those crazy suits and get lunar dust on his boots. Going to the moon was a messed up, crazily dangerous, mind-messing endurance test, and this movie succeeds in making that abundantly clear.