Director: Damien Chazelle
Release Date: October 12, 2018
Damien Chazelle takes perhaps America’s most famous super hero and successfully turns him into a three dimensional every-man.
First Man, based on the James R. Hansen book of the same title, follows Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his wife Janet (Foy) through the 1960’s as he takes steps that eventually lead him to become the first man to walk on the moon. The mild-mannered, understated Armstrong is tasked with keeping the gargantuan goal as his focus, while the family, political, social, and personal pressures build around him. Neil’s inability to acknowledge the implications and dangers of his work, leaves his wife in a constant state of frantic worry. First Man strays from the space movie clichés and instead chooses to focus on the difficulties that must be endured on earth before one can hope to leave it.
The film doesn’t follow traditional space movie rules but presents the preparation of space travel in a way that would still be interesting to any space lover. There are many impressive sets, namely the inside of the shuttles, but the focus on the moon landing often comes in the form of the training done on earth. The wide shots of shuttles launching and earth from above are excluded in favor of intimate shots from inside the cockpit with our leading man Neil. The scenes of space walks above the atmosphere are exchanged for scenes with training simulators that are rarely seen in other space movies.
The movie does a good job of creating tense moments even with the audience knowing the eventual outcome. This feat is accomplished with the help of a strong performance by Claire Foy as the worrisome Janet Armstrong. Given the scale of the movie, Foy will likely receive an Oscar nomination for her role. Ryan Gosling plays his role well and will likely receive a nod as well. The complex introvert has really become Gosling’s wheelhouse with movies like 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl, 2011’s Drive, and now First Man under his belt. The movie has strong supporting performances throughout led by Jason Clarke’s performance as Ed White and Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Buzz Aldrin.
While First Man feels more like a biopic about pressures and family than a space exploration movie, director Damien Chazelle does a great job of balancing both. This is the stage of Chazelle’s career where everything he puts his stamp on is a must-watch. We’ve seen him do small budget films to perfection (2014’s Whiplash), we’ve seen him do medium budget films to perfection (2016 ‘s La La Land) and as the budget keeps climbing, he continues on a Christopher Nolan trajectory by proving he can take on any project no matter how big. This movie is not the intense psychological game that Whiplash is, and it’s not the fun musical that La La Land is (although Justin Hurwitz, La La Land’s leading music man handles the score) but it really puts Chazelle’s versatility on display and shows a never-before-seen side of the moon-landing, his stated goal.
First Man is definitely worth a look, unless you’re a big fan of 1998’s Armageddon. After watching the training and preparation that Neil Armstrong goes through in this movie, I no longer have any confidence in Ben Affleck’s ability to be an astronaut.