First Man (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
The latest film from Damien Chazelle, whose last two films (Whiplash, La La Land) have combined for 9 Academy Awards - First Man is a movie you cannot pass up.
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are terrific here, with Gosling restrained, tight, and internal in his performance as Neil Armstrong, and Foy far surpassing what’s written for her as Armstrong’s wife, Janet.
From the claustrophobic, enclosed cockpits to the vast infinities of space, and the emotional landing on the Moon, First Man, from a technical standpoint, is a dazzling, masterfully made film.
Hard to lobby against First Man, however the script tends to be at a loss on what it wants to tell us about Armstrong in key moments, leaving us lacking a continuous connection to the main character.
Those sensitive to motion sickness and affected by rapid, handheld camera work, there are a few extended sequences in the film which may pose a concern for you as a viewer.
You believe we never really landed on the Moon and this perpetuates a hoax or larger conspiracy.
Following in the footsteps of Miles Teller’s Andrew in Whiplash and Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian in La La Land, Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle again proves that he can tell the tortured male protagonist story, perhaps better than anyone else with First Man, the story of how Neil Armstrong became the first man to ever walk on the moon.
If that sounds like a jab at the movie, let me be clear: First Man is scintillating; a dynamic, emotional, immersive look at not just Armstrong’s personal journey to the lunar soil, but the often calamitous rush by the federal government and NASA to get America into outer space.
With First Man completing something of a triad of male-focused movies, Chazelle has shown us that there is a certain type of man he likes to explore. Gosling re-teams with Chazelle to portray Armstrong, giving us a third male character who is stubborn, emotionally withdrawn to the point of strain, oblivious to the impact said withdrawal has on those closest to him, and yet retains fierce convictions in achieving his mission of a) winning over an abusive mentor; b) fulfilling a dream to create and perform music on one’s own terms; or c) fly into outer space.
Rather than simply being a biopic about Armstrong, Chazelle expands his scope to bring us Neil Armstrong in the broader context of heightened anxiety and governmental fervor around the then-Soviet Union’s advances in the “Space Race.”
Russia got there first, in April 1961 when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The American space program was pushing hard towards launching its first human being into orbit, desperately needing a success after the program had been in tatters, because of years of failed engineering, stalls, accidents, and simply not having success like their Russian rivals experienced.
American astronaut Alan Shepard, a few weeks after Gagarin’s accomplishments, succeeded in controlling a spacecraft outside of the Earth’s atmosphere in May 1961. And for the next several years, with a diplomatic Cold War raging on the ground between both countries, a Space War took place in the stars, as the countries witnessed successes and failures within their respective programs.
Through much of First Man, Armstrong is presented as a journeyman; that excellent employee who shows up everyday and does everything asked of him. After a powerful opening 20 minutes, we settle in with Neil and wife Janet (Claire Foy), reeling from the tragic passing of their 2-year-old daughter Karen, from a rare form of brain cancer. Armstrong is depicted as a man of few words, dutiful when home, but his work ethic and steely resolve earn him a great deal of respect among his peers.
Unlike the crackling, bloody knuckles intensity of Whiplash, or the picturesque, timeless beauty found in La La Land, Chazelle relies on implementing incredible visual effects and a jarring, enveloping sound design to punctuate his film and story.
In a stunning opening sequence, we are immersed in the cockpit with Armstrong as he navigates a test flight of an X-15 rocket-powered aircraft. After a violent thrashing around and disorienting sense of chaos, we briefly see peace and quiet. A fleeting moment of tranquility finds us and Armstrong, where we bear witness to the impossible becoming truly possible.
As is often the case, Chazelle earns tremendous performances from his cast. Gosling is dialed in, fantastic as Armstrong, conveying a disciplined and mannered father, husband, and astronaut, fatefully escalating towards a future moment in history. Foy is saddled with the all-too familiar “Good Wife Who Keeps A Clean House”-type role, but she makes the most out of it, delivering strong and memorable moments in key scenes where she challenges Neil to remember to be a father to his two sons before anything else.
Armstrong would famously land on the moon with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) on the Apollo 11 mission, and Chazelle offers us a chance to meet influential astronauts and scientists, portrayed by Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Ethan Embry and others. Kyle Chandler has some nice moments as Deke Slayton, the stern, weathered Chief Officer of the Astronaut Program for NASA.
First Man is breathtaking to watch and suggestions to see it in IMAX are not an exaggeration. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren creates both beauty and intensity with ease, leaving us catching our breath, reeling in tragedy, or anxious with anticipation of what may come.
And yet, Chazelle seems to struggle with the emotional beats which lie behind the astonishing visual presentation. There just isn’t a whole lot of there there, when it comes to the personalities in play. Chazelle and Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight) seem unsure what they want us to understand about Armstrong as a man, apart from his iconic status in world history.
We simply need a bit more engagement. The story eventually becomes so singularly focused on the Apollo 11 accomplishment (and understandably so…), we are left wondering what truly drove Armstrong to push through debilitating personal adversity and make the continued sacrifice to spend so much time away from his family.
Perhaps Chazelle and Singer looked at Armstrong and simply wanted to create something of an unlikely hero. A soft-spoken, quiet man, whose famous quote “...One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” spoke louder and more profoundly than anything he would likely ever speak, write, or otherwise contribute for the rest of his life. Even with the Moon Landing sequence being among the finest things you will witness in a theater all year, First Man, increasingly seems at odds with itself, more comfortable as spectacle than story in key emotional moments.
Even with its stumbles, First Man is, from bell to bell, a tremendous achievement. A richer script would truly deliver a more lasting, resonant impact, but there is so much to take in and experience while watching this, you cannot help but be impressed by Chazelle’s talents all over again.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Ciarán Hinds, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Cory Michael Smith, Brady Smith, Brian d’Arcy James, Matthew Glave, Luke Winters, Leon Bridges.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Josh Singer
Based on the book, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen.
Release Date: October 12, 2018