“First Man” (dir. Damien Chazelle) stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Kyle Chandler, and is a biopic about the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Gosling). While the film does follow Neil’s plight getting to the moon, the main focus is on Neil himself and his relationship with his wife, Janet (Foy), as they deal with countless tragedies throughout their lives. The name “Damien Chazelle” will probably ring familiar to many audiences. He wrote and directed two Best Picture nominated films with “Whiplash” and “La La Land” and, in 2017, became the youngest director ever to win the award for Best Director at the 89th Academy Awards. It is safe to say that Chazelle’s incredible body of work before he has even turned 35 is astounding and he will definitely be one of Hollywood’s go-to filmmakers for the rest of his career. That being said, his first two feature films were based in fiction while using his own script. “First Man” is based on a true story and features a script written by Josh Singer. Despite being his weakest film to date, Chazelle helms “First Man” superbly, getting great performances from his cast, while incorporating stunning and dizzying effects.
Both lead performances in “First Man” are Oscar worthy. Gosling’s portrayal of Neil Armstrong is subtle with a lot of history attached to his expressions. You can tell by the way he carries himself that he has dealt with a lot of pain and has suffered, without the movie ever explicitly telling you what he’s been through. This remorse leaks across the screen and gives all of Gosling’s scenes a very emotional tint. While Gosling’s portrayal may be accurate to the real man, his act does get a bit stale at times. It can be difficult as viewer to watch a cold and monotone performance for the entire film. Enter Foy’s Janet Armstrong. Foy’s work here is a perfect foil to Gosling’s performance. She’s very loud and emotional. She’s the one scolding Neil to talk to his kids before he embarks on his moon journey. In a way, Janet is the audience. Throughout the film, I was wishing Neil would just talk to his kids or interact more with his co-pilots, and Janet immediately says whatever I was thinking. She’s the voice of reason in their relationship and throughout the film.
The two converging storylines in Neil’s life are strung together so nicely that the film is more emotionally powerful as a result. Choosing to start with a faulty plane crash and setting the stage for Neil’s daughter’s situation is the perfect way to introduce the audience to Neil’s life. He is so motivated to advance NASA and go where no one has gone, while also caring for his family. But neither are ever going the way he wants them to. Once something goes well with his work, tragedy hits the family, or vice versa. This film has a very high body count. Characters rarely escape in situations with insurmountable odds and no character is ever safe from disease or catastrophy, so the film has a very somber and realistic tone. These actions build and build until Armstrong finally gets to the moon. The lunar sequence is as emotionally satisfying as it is breathtaking. It’s a story where everyone knows the ending, but in context, it means so much more to the man in the helmet.
Speaking of breathtaking visuals, “First Man” is filled to the brim with them. The film was shot with 35mm film, adding an aged and weathered feeling to the frame missing from most modern day period pieces. Chazelle’s smart use of handheld camera leads to a general feel that you’re spying on these people through ever scene. Nothing ever feels like a production or a finished film. The special effects are astounding. The sound designs of the take off sequences are loud and nerving, giving the viewer the fear that one of these rockets could fall apart at any moment. The launch sequences are nerve racking and very dirty. The camera shakes as if it was placed inside of one of these rockets. Nothing about it feels clean, which is perfect for the tone of “First Man.” It isn’t a pristine looking film with a glossy finish. The production design and all of the technical aspects combine to create an aged and gritty experience. The lunar landing sequence is also one of the most incredibly shots and best uses of the IMAX format since “Mission Impossible: Fallout.” The scale is huge and the emotional payoff from one of Gosling’s best moments leads to my favorite scene in the whole film.
As for flaws, “First Man” stumbles slightly out of the gate right after the introduction of Armstrong’s work and family life. The introduction is so strong that everything else subsequent to it feels very slow. The pacing suffers greatly in the second act, as there isn’t much dialogue or many incredible visuals. There are a lot of simple scenes with Neil and his crew or Neil and Janet that do build tension, but feel a bit dry. Nothing feels hopeful, which can get exhausting. It also loses some of the balance between the family and NASA. Neil’s focus is always on NASA, but the film focuses way more on the family than space exploration, which is disappointing at times because, even when Neil is home with his family, he rarely speaks or interacts with them. Watching Armstrong isolate himself and mope around the screen with a very dry look can get boring when it’s practically the only thing you see for about an hour or so. While it may be a true story and it is tough to cut scenes out of the film, “First Man” could have been about 15 minutes shorter. These aren’t major issues, but annoying enough to make watching this film a bit drier.
“First Man” is an incredible technical achievement with fantastic acting. The flaws are there and enough to affect your viewing experience, but not enough to not recommend. I would definitely recommend seeing “First Man” on the biggest screen you possibly can. Gosling and Foy’s performances are superb, the emotional tension building is moving, and the IMAX lunar sequence is one of the most stunning sequences to grace the silver screen this year.