Damien Chazelle is still young in his directorial career, but his accomplishments are vast. He’s made three 3 great film that are all centered around music. Two of which are actual musicals. He’s written dialogue that’s led to two different Academy Award winning performances. He’s even the youngest ever winner of the best Director Oscar and his 2016 film ‘La La Land’ won best picture (albeit briefly).
All this information makes his decision to make ‘First Man’ feel kind of strange. This doesn’t seem like a project a 30-year-old director with a blank check would make. It feels more like a story Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg would want to tell. However, what we get when we put this seemingly unlikely pairing together is something different, and really incredible. We seem to get one adult space movie a year from Hollywood. Most of them are enjoyable, but I can’t remember the last time one was this breathtaking and awe inspiring. Chazelle still has a long career ahead of him and ‘First Man’ shows he will be remembered as more than just a song and dance director.
The film is based on the official biography of Neil Armstrong and chronicles his life from the early 1960’s to his time at NASA and the Apollo 11 mission. I won’t delve much into the plot. Mainly because you probably know most of the story, and the moments from his life you may be unfamiliar with are some of the best moments of the ‘First Man’.
Ryan Gosling portrays Armstrong with a kind of reckless calm. There are some early scenes in the film when Gosling appears to be playing the former astronaut almost like he played the replicant “K” in last years ‘Blade Runner 2049’. I’ve even heard some people criticize the film as cold, largely due to his performance. That feels like an unfair reading. His Neil Armstrong is a determined and reserved man. He experiences a tragedy early in the film and he will only allow be overcome with emotion once he is completely alone. Once he joins the NASA program and finds his personal Everest in the moon; his determination begins to verge on obsession. This obsession is the through line for his character threatens his home life.
Claire Foy is the other lead of the film and plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet. On the surface it would appear that she is given the role of concerned wife on the phone. Or concerned wife listening to the radio. But again, I think that is ignoring the work that both Chazelle and Foy are putting into ‘First Man‘. Space isn’t so much the great beyond as it is a terrifying darkness that we don’t understand. Neil’s quest to be on the moon feels at times like it’s something he has to do so his friends won’t have given their lives in vain. During this quiet unraveling, Janet stands strong and stable and is the force holding the earth together until Armstrong can retrieve his holy grail and return from his odyssey.
The supporting cast in ‘First Man’ is a who’s who of character actors and “that guy”. Their parts are small and there little flash to be found them, but each actor is talented enough that you become invested in them as soon as they come on screen. Their casting serves as a great shorthand for the film.
This film really doesn’t feel like an actor’s showcase though. Which is odd because ‘Whiplash’, and to a lesser extent ‘La La Land’, are both known for award winning performances. Instead this movie belongs wholly to Damien Chazelle. The Director made the decision to shoot the movie in both IMAX and super 16mm film. The large format shots are breathtaking once the ‘First Man‘ is in space. However, it’s amazing to the graininess of the film on earth is just as captivating. It adds a realism to the story and humanizes all involved.
We’re not simply watching the great men of the 1960’s stick to the U.S.S.R. We’re almost watching home movies about family men in Houston who happen to be astronauts. We’re seeing everyone at NASA deal with the fact that what they’re trying to do may be impossible and wondering if the human loss is worth it. Chazelle’s camera is able to capture both of those emotions masterfully. We feel the exuberance of the first time we stepped on the moon (spoilers) and sorrow of watching a suburban family slowly fall apart on earth, and we feel them both equally.
‘Frist Man’ will probably not go down as Damien Chazelle’s masterpiece. It might not even be the best film he has made yet. But it is something special. The Director, Gosling & Foy have all put together a film that only honor’s Neil Armstrong and his accomplishments, but doesn’t have to resort to old tropes to do it. It may not be the patriotic battle cry some want to see. However, it is a film about how humanity, even with all our faults ans shortcomings, can make giant leaps for mankind. I think that’s a better message.