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First Man

For a movie where you can’t expect surprises about the main story line — because it’s in every history book — this movie certainly did not disappoint! In fact, First Man is a phenomenal movie.

The opening scene immediately sets the tone. In a shaky, chaotic, sweaty and nervous test-flight, a few years before the moon landing, we are introduced to Neil Armstrong. But also to the fact that mankind is already pushing the limits of technology: this notion will be a recurring theme in the movie. There are no expensive special effects in the scene but you do feel you are there, with Neil, in the cockpit. So trough this film, we might get a chance to experience what that must have felt like (and even more so, of course, later on in the movie).

Even though this was just an early test flight we also immediately get a sense why Neil Armstrong was picked to be the first man on the moon years later. He is able to keep it together in the most stressful situations. This makes Ryan Gosling the right actor to play him. Gosling has the most perfect cool and collected demeanor of any actor out there right now. Or, if you’re on the other side of the Gosling appreciation spectrum, you would call him stoic and stiff. Either way, both work for this part.

There are many things to like about the movie, so here’s a list:

  • The movie does an incredible job to underline the fact that mankind was just BARELY able to pull off the moon landing. Technology was JUST about ready. And this is how true innovation always works. They didn’t iterate until it was a sure and safe thing. They went, when they could. This is how mankind has always pushed forward, setting many small steps before barely being able to make a leap. And then we leap.
  •  We are used to blockbuster space and sci-fi movies, but First Man is a terrifically refreshing movie about how insanely incredible going to the moon (our nearest planet!) actually is. And it isn’t even sci-fi.
  • The movie does not shy away from the critique that mounted around the Apollo space program as it progressed. Billions of taxpayer dollars were poured in and lives were lost. So of course some people were opposed to it. Especially at a time where so much was going on already (civil rights movement, Vietnam war, Cold war etc.). I really like that the movie also shows this (Whitey on the Moon) and puts the space program into context. At one point actual footage of Kurt Vonnegut is shown, criticizing the space program (can’t find it on YouTube). This is where the movie sort of breaks a wall between a documentary and a movie. And it works.
  • The blind ambition, fueled by the Cold War, to go to the moon and show the world who’s boss also has a place in the movie. It’s not just the inspiring speech of Kennedy (“We choose to go to the moon.“). There were and are always also more (banal?) reasons.
  • The use of sound in the movie is amazing. Or, rather the lack of sound (anti-sound?), especially around the landing scene. I just love, love that part. It absolutely quiet. And I never heard a movie theater more quiet during this scene.
  • The movie is largely based on the biography of Neil Armstrong and most focus is on him and his wife, so you could call it a biopic, but that clearly wouldn’t do the movie justice . It’s a much broader movie about, of course, the Apollo space program but even more so about ordinary people in general, achieving extraordinary things.
  • It is a movie, so parts are fictionalized,  and we will never really know what Neil Armstrong really was like and what he must have experienced. But I  liked how the movie linked the technological progress and subsequent sacrifices with the sacrifices it took on family life. The people and their lives are portrayed in a unassuming, very true to life manner, which adds to the notion that it were really just people that went to the moon. Everyday people with everyday problems.
  • What do you say when you’re the first man on the moon. We all know the famous line. But here’s another one, what do you say to your wife when you get back from the moon? The way the movie plays out, this part becomes almost just as important. And the director cleverly uses the same soundscape (quiet) from the moon landing for this scene.
  • I left the theater thinking the moon landing was really peak mankind. I have a hard time imagining something more daring, bold, inspiring and successful. Every since I visited Kennedy Space Center in 2009 on my honeymoon I’ve been thinking about this. And even if you don’t have the chance to visit KSC, this movie will imprint that same sense.

I calculated Neil Armstrong was about exactly my age when he walked on the moon (minus 12 days), maybe that’s why I so strongly felt I could relate. Or maybe it’s all of the above reasons why I like this movie. Either way: this movie is now on my favorites list. This is a phenomenal movie about the greatest endeavor mankind ever accomplished. Go see it.

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