“First Man” Movie Review

That’s one small step for Ryan and Damien. One giant leap for cinema. Or at least, relatively speaking. This space-based biographical drama premiered as the opening night film at the 75th Venice International Film Festival. Following subsequent screenings at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, it was released in theaters by Universal Pictures on October 12th, 2018. Made on a budget of $50-70 million, the film struggled to even placed third during its opening weekend. Despite this, the producers remain optimistic on their prospects, hoping that the waves of positive reviews can carry them for a few months. Directed by Damien Chazelle of Whiplash and La La Land fame, the rights for the nonfiction novel, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James Hansen, had been up for grabs as early as 2003, with Clint Eastwood interested in taking the reigns. In the mid-2010s, following the massive critical and financial success of his musical dramas, Chazelle was signed on while Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer penned the script. It’s also Chazelle’s first film with a major studio. Based on the true story, Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, a NASA test pilot who’s recruited as an astronaut in their intensive outer space program. Taking place from 1961 to 1969, America is constantly attempting trial and error in its space race against the Soviet Union. Still grieving and struggling with his wife Janet, Armstrong does everything he can as NASA continues to become the first ones to land and walk on the Moon. It should be no surprise to anyone that I absolutely love both of Chazelle’s previous films, Whiplash and La La Land. It’s increasingly hard to find a young filmmaker these days whose able to produce back-to-back masterpieces in just the span of a couple years. So no doubt was I curious about what he could accomplish not only with a biographical picture, but his first one made for a major studio. And while First Man may not be as incredible as his last two films, it’s still a great film and one that pushes the director’s boundaries even further. My biggest issue with this film has to do with the main subject. No, no, not that stupid American Flag controversy that’s gotten some conservatives worked up for no reason whatsoever. Rather, it’s Neil Armstrong himself. While we see quite a bit of the man’s struggles and accomplishments, including his two-year-old daughter Karen dying of cancer, it’s hard to crack his shell. I’m not quite sure if it’s because he was a private person to begin with or Josh Singer’s script didn’t dig deep enough. It definitely is a “mission movie” as marketed, and is at its best when it focuses on that mission to the Moon. Still, there’s a little something left to be desired when it comes to the man. If nothing else for that, Ryan Gosling gives one of his finest performances as Neil Armstrong. Not nearly as showy as typical biopic leads, his performance is very internalized and quiet; we see so much happening within his face that he doesn’t need to say a word. In fact, he doesn’t speak many lines of dialogue. By his side is The Crown star Claire Foy as his wife Janet, who’s equally impressive. While it does seem like a typical nagging/concerned wife archetype at first, she evolves into a woman struggling to keep her family whole after a tragedy. She’s also right to be scared for him and her sons, angrily asking her husband, “What are the chances it’s the last time they see you?” The supporting players include Cory Stoll as Neil’s feisty wingman Buzz Aldrin, Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds as NASA figureheads, Jason Clarke as the fellow wide-eyed test pilot Ed White, and Christopher Abbott as one of the few astronauts to form a genuine connection with Armstrong. Some feel typecast, some seem a little to showy, but no one does a bad job in their roles. Meanwhile, technical side of First Man show that Damien Chazelle is still in complete control of his own voice, bringing previous collaborators back in several areas. This includes Linus Sandgren’s handheld, cinéma vérité style of cinematography, which works extremely well with the intent of the story. By primarily using 16 mm, 35 mm, and eventually IMAX 70 mm film stock, a lot of what’s shown on-screen is completely practical and given more colorful texture. It also makes it seem like a long-lost home movie, placing us directly in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong. Thanks to production designer Nathan Crowley, who also worked on Interstellar, the sets all feel incredibly lived-in and real, whether it’s a model spaceship or a 1960’s suburban home. At certain points, it genuinely felt as though the actors and crew were filming in space, especially with all the fantastic lighting effects. Meanwhile, the editing by Tom Cross is very similar to Whiplash in its visceral intensity and command of perspective. Often times, it’ll switch from a huge wide shot of the spacecraft to a P.O.V. from inside Neil’s helmet, making the journey feel even more perilous. Admittedly, it can get a little too shaky for its own good, as there are some shots where it’s really hard to tell what’s going on. But again, that just brings more to the intense feeling of being in the man’s shoes- or rather, his space boots. Academy Award-winning composer writes the instrumental score for the film, and it’s completely different from La La Land. Gone are the upbeat, jazzy tunes and instead we get a soundtrack that is at once intimate and epic in scale. The use of a subtle Theremin and low, staccato strings in several tracks creates a ghoulish, almost otherworldly feel to the true story. It also signifies a feeling of haunting grief that Armstrong struggles to move on from. The greatest and most effective track comes when the Moon Landing itself comes about, a 5-and-a-half minute piece with a consistent string melody. It gradually builds with more percussion and horns, crafting one of the most memorable moments in a film I’ve seen this year. When it’s all said and done, this film actually made me appreciate the Apollo mission even more. Nearly 50 years later, it’s a feat that so many people in our society almost take for granted. Watching all of these people working tirelessly to get things right, and constantly failing to figure out their margin of error, was extremely gripping. I was never a believer in the whole idea of Stanley Kubrick faking the Moon Landing, but now these men and women have my deepest respect. First Man is an exhilarating account of a historic achievement that occasionally loses sight of its humanity. Not quite a masterpiece, but it still shows that Damien Chazelle is able to handle larger productions without losing his personal touch. An almost Spielberg-ian look into one of the proudest human accomplishments of the last century, while Neil Armstrong is still something of an enigma, there’s no denying his indelible contribution to history.

1 thought on ““First Man” Movie Review

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: 2018 Superlatives | Geek's Landing

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