First Man, 2018.
Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Ciaran Hinds, Ethan Embry, Olivia Hamilton, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, J.D. Evermore, John David Whalen, Kris Swanberg, Skyler Bible, Ben Owen, William Gregory Lee, Steven Coulter, Shawn Eric Jones, Brady Smith, Gavin Warren, Luke Winters, and Pablo Schreiber.
A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
First Man has way more in common with the Oscar-nominated (Best Picture for about 10 seconds) La La Land than the director/star combination of Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling. Thematically, it strikes a familiar chord with both of the filmmaker’s previous explorations, even containing imprints of Whiplash as well. To clarify, the director isn’t drawn to telling this historical story for necessarily patriotic purposes, saintly depicting Neil Armstrong, or bombarding audiences with the dreaded factual lessons that burden certain biopics; this is a story of sacrifice that examines the cost of winning the space race and the reasons for reaching out to the moon, both personal and grander picture.
Written by Josh Singer (Spotlight) and based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, there has already been some controversy regarding the film’s lunar landing climax, where the titular astronaut does not plant an American flag on the surface of the crater, sparking some outrage that while is overblown, is nonetheless understandable and justifiable to a reasonable extent. However, anyone that has been even remotely paying attention for the first two hours will quickly catch on as to why that detail has been glossed over; this is first and foremost a character study of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling as emotionally reserved with bottled up feelings. The center of his pain comes from the loss of a young daughter of a brain tumor, and while Neil is certainly distant from his family about how the loss has and continues to affect his mental well-being, it also becomes one of the pressing reasons he feels compelled and psychologically consumed to visit the moon.
Also, ever since finishing up his duties for the Navy the American hero has always dreamed of space exploration, excelling at college for such practices and finding work within the space program following a stint as a crash test pilot. The fascination has always been there, but as the challenges mount up (a great deal of the first half of the movie/60s finds various astronauts and scientists trying to come up with a solution to dock while in orbit) alongside subsequent danger that takes the lives of not just follow space travelers, but close friends, it’s clear that Neil feels obligated, almost destined, to reach the moon as a way of paying respects for those who have fallen on the odyssey. With all that in mind, by the time he eventually lands on the moon, the quest is far more personal than patriotic, which is reflected in the storytelling and powerfully so.
Although Neil’s family is an important aspect of this analysis, Claire Foy doesn’t really have much to do as wife and mother Janet Armstrong beyond the stereotypical trappings of acting worried and frustrating at Neil for him seemingly placing this nearly impossible, life-threatening mission above his family. She does fine with the material given, but it all feels underwritten; the glimpses of fractured family life only serve the purpose of hammering home the fact that Neil is quietly obsessed with his astronaut goals, which is fine but executed without much character depth beyond Neil Armstrong himself. Thankfully, the rest of the supporting cast is filled with notable names that round out one of the year’s best ensembles; it doesn’t matter how small or big the role is, everyone stands out, especially Corey Stoll’s insensitive and outspoken portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Whenever characters die there is a looming sadness, both for the actual losses and how grieving piled on top of grieving plays with Neil’s psyche.
Look, as wonderful as the character work for Neil Armstrong is, it’s fully understandable that the majority of viewers buying a ticket for First Man are doing so for first-rate special-effects goodness, and it’s not really a surprise that those people will not be disappointed. Damien Chazelle frames aircraft cockpit scenes with extreme claustrophobia; the insane amount of detail from the image combined with these crammed close quarters allow every rattle and physical jolt to hit with a heightened immersive quality. Not only that, but the tight cinematography often cycles between abort mission buttons, fuel displays, and the characters themselves, all playing on both the current status of the mission and Neil’s state of mind (you almost wish you could smack him every time the camera shifts to the abort button to make sure he doesn’t do it, even though you know he won’t no matter how perilous the situation gets). At one point, a fire emerges from out of nowhere that quickly spirals out of control, making for one hell of an intense sequence that would not be nearly as effective without the bold decision to place us as close as can be to the characters, even if shaky camera style might not be for some. Just as stunning, the wide shots of space, whether it be from vessels careening around the moon or a heart-stopping, breathtaking 360° swivel around the surface of the moon.
First Man is more than just impressive visually, as Damien Chazelle is once again collaborating with composer Justin Hurwitz, who has created a sweeping, adventurous, and downright movie magical score that is equal to every and any aesthetic achievement. Consistently, the beautiful music elevates the dangers these characters are facing alongside just how revelatory what they are accomplishing is. When you take all of that and place it into an environment like a real IMAX theater, you have an unrelenting visual and sonic assault of the senses that will remain unforgettable for years to come.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have any flaws; the first act jumps around a bit and flies through some of the decade’s earlier years to establish some plot points and whatnot, mostly working but occasionally leaving the narrative scattered as it introduces characters all over the place. Also, the rift between the relationship of Neil and Janet Armstrong could use a bit more dramatic flair. Nevertheless, as the Apollo 11 mission draws closer, First Man finds a groove and fires on all cylinders. When the crew launches for the moon and the film’s aspect ratio shifts (everything on the moon was filmed with IMAX cameras), hold your breath. Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, and Justin Hurwitz are quickly making their case as the modern-day holy trinity of filmmaking; all of them deserve awards recognition and have once again funneled their outstanding efforts to grippingly juxtapose sacrifice with ambition.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com