October 10, 2018

Neil Armstrong’s Biopic Explores Angst of Legendary Astronaut

By Kam Williams

Neil Armstrong made history on July 20, 1969 when he became the first person to walk on the moon. Subsequently, the NASA astronaut never sought to cash in on his celebrity status. Instead, he eschewed fame and fortune and withdrew from the limelight in favor of sharing his experiences in the classroom as a college professor. He even discouraged biographers until he finally agreed to cooperate with James R. Hansen on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.

Published in 2005, the book has been adapted to the screen by Oscar-winning scriptwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight). However, the movie covers 1961 through 1969 — Armstrong’s early years in the space program — and ending with Apollo 11’s historic lunar landing.

The picture reunites Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling, whose collaboration on the delightful musical La La Land (2016) earned Chazelle the Best Director Academy Award and Gosling a nomination as the Lead Actor. First Man describes the astronauts’ perilous training regimen and portrays Armstrong’s struggles with his job and his family life.

The movie’s somber tone is set when Neil’s and his wife Janet’s (Claire Foy) 2-year-old daughter Karen loses her battle with brain cancer. Armstrong then throws himself into his preparations for space flight, and his emotional unavailability puts a strain on his relationship with his family. 

The risks associated with the Gemini and Apollo programs further intensify Armstrong’s palpable angst after numerous astronauts died in accidents during training, including his close friends Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit).

The movie is a fitting tribute to an American icon best remembered as a humble, vulnerable soul with human frailties.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for peril, mature themes, and brief profanity. Running time: 141 minutes. Production Studio: Amblin Entertainment/Perfect World Pictures/Dreamworks/Universal Pictures/Temple Hill Entertainment. Studio: Universal Pictures.