First Man is an intimate and epic biopic fueled by strong performances from its cast, as well as masterful craftsmanship by Chazelle.
After establishing himself as one of his generation’s premier filmmakers with Oscar-winning titles Whiplash and La La Land, director Damien Chazelle returns with First Man, which chronicles the true story of NASA’s attempt to put man on the moon. The film screened at various festivals earlier this year, where it emerged as a leading contender in several categories for the 2019 Academy Awards. Now that it’s opening in theaters nationwide, audiences will have a chance to see that it very much lives up to the hype and ranks as one of 2018’s best films. First Man is an intimate and epic biopic fueled by strong performances from its cast, as well as masterful craftsmanship by Chazelle.
In the 1960s, America is in the thick of the space race with the Soviet Union, frustratingly falling behind their rivals in several areas. Looking to finally surpass Russia, NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) spearheads a new mission that will see the organization travel to the moon. To complete the very complicated process, the program recruits several astronauts, including civilian Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), and starts work on the task at hand.
Since an undertaking of this magnitude has never been attempted, it requires NASA to tirelessly perfect several innovations in order to make sure their vehicles are safe. As a result, Armstrong dedicates himself to his job, while at the same time he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. With outside pressure from the government and protestors beginning to mount, NASA attempts to take the steps necessary to be first to the moon – fulfilling the wishes of the late former president John F. Kennedy.
Though First Man is the first feature of Chazelle’s he did not also write (Spotlight’s Josh Singer penned the script), it still bears many similarities to his other projects. The main crux of the narrative sees Armstrong look to balance his professional and personal responsibilities, increasingly growing distant from his family as he throws himself into his arduous work. Singer himself finds a nice harmony between these two aspects, alternating between raw, emotional looks at the Armstrongs’ home life (playing with the kids, dinner with neighbors, etc.) and the high-stakes world of NASA where precision is paramount and danger lurks around every corner. Fortunately, both are given equal time to shine, strengthening the movie’s foundational core as it paints a fascinating portrait of the man at its center and builds towards an affecting climax.
Gosling gives a very understated performance as Neil, playing the now-famous astronaut as a laser-focused and introverted man haunted by the past. At times, the actor can come across across as distant and cold, but the personality Gosling channels reads as an accurate depiction of the real-life Neil, and he still has moments of touching humanity peppered throughout to make Neil feel like a well-rounded character. Foy certainly has the showier role of the two main leads, serving as the rock of the Armstrong family as her dreams of a “normal” life wash away. In lesser hands, Janet could have been nothing more than another “concerned wife” cliché, but the script gives Janet enough autonomy and she asserts herself in certain key moments. Foy handles the part exceptionally well, and is responsible for some of the film’s more heart-wrenching scenes when Janet confronts the harsh truths about Neil’s job.
The true star of the film, however, is Chazelle, who takes another leap forward as an artist here. There’s a very interesting dichotomy with how he constructs scenes. Sections of the Armstrongs at home can play as serene and peaceful, complemented immensely by Justin Hurwitz’ musical score, which lulls the audience into a relaxing state. In contrast, the NASA sequences are riveting and suspenseful, reminiscent of Whiplash’s torturous drum lessons – with the threat of death a looming possibility. Even though the outcome of the story will be known by most watching, Chazelle is able to establish palpable tension throughout First Man’s running time, highlighting the incredible risks and sacrifices made to accomplish a goal. Employing a number of close-ups and first-person shots, he also makes the film feel quite immersive, placing the viewer right alongside Armstrong and crew for the ride. Some might find this stylistic choice off-putting, but it’s widely effective and adds another layer to the film. Chazelle’s awe-inspiring visuals make First Man a must-see on the biggest screen possible. IMAX premiums are worth the additional cost in this instance.
With so much of the focus (understandably) on Neil, the rest of the supporting cast doesn’t have as much to do, but all still deliver quality turns. Chandler is a no-nonsense, authoritative presence and Jason Clarke brings his everyman qualities to Ed White, Neil’s fellow astronaut and friend. Corey Stoll makes the most of his limited screen time as Buzz Aldrin, an outspoken individual who in many ways is the polar opposite of the quiet and reserved Neil. Stoll only appears in a handful of scenes, yet is able to leave his mark by providing some (very) dark humor and a different perspective on what NASA is trying to accomplish. All in all, the entire ensemble is quite good, but this is definitely Gosling and Foy’s show.
Chazelle was already one of Hollywood’s most exciting young directors before First Man, and the skill displayed on this film indicates he’s (probably) here to stay for the long haul. While La La Land featured some elaborate musical numbers, First Man is arguably the biggest canvas Chazelle has painted on, and he’s now demonstrated that he can handle a large scope, while at the same time delivering compelling character-based drama – marking a thrilling evolution for him as a helmsman. First Man is certainly one cinephiles need to check out in theaters as awards season heats up and contenders make their way to the multiplex.
First Man is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 138 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.
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