Every so often a film comes around that’s a legitimate surprise. It’s always difficult to know what to expect with historical features, so when Damien Chazelle announced his intention to tell the story of Neil Armstrong for his next picture, it seemed like a questionable decision. While being an all-American hero, Armstrong led a quiet and relatively uneventful life (except for that one little moon landing…). Apollo 11 was a successful, if seemingly drama free mission. Would the story really translate to screens? Well, Chazelle has done it again with First Man.
First Man follows the iconic story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as the young pilot joins NASA during the agency’s space race to get to the moon. The movie examines the events’ toll on his wife (Claire Foy) and their children. Damien Chazelle directs the film from a script by Josh Singer.
Ultimately, unless you’ve been living under a historical rock, you know where this movie goes. It really shouldn’t be a spoiler to say Armstrong lands on the moon. With this film, Chazelle once again proves himself to be a master storyteller as he finds tension where there shouldn’t be any. This feature doesn’t have the polish or glamour of Chazelle’s previous work like La La Land, and in turn there is often a nostalgic glow when handling subject matter like the space program (think movies like Apollo 13).
However, First Man takes a different approach, crafting a sense of visceral tension in the action. This extends from the flight sequences which are depicted with a shaky cam, perspective shots, close cuts and frenetic editing. In this handling, Chazelle places the audiences right there with Armstrong. The point is not to idolize Armstrong for a seemingly flawless narrative, but instead hone in on the reality of the story. Audiences are supposed to feel they are right next to him as he risks his life. Those who are in anyway motion sensitive should avoid this movie in larger formats like Imax. A number of the action sequences are constructed with such ferocity that it feels anxiety inducing.
First Man is particularly strong as a character drama. Hollywood often crafts the members of NASA during this period through a glossy nostalgia crafting them as young men with happy families craving adventure. First Man comes at this story from a different angle, and as such really puts its finger on the cultural struggles with gender roles during this period.
Working in tandem with Gosling, Chazelle crafts Armstrong as a keen examination of post World War Two masculinity which very few films are able to provide. While Armstrong was too young to have served in WWII, the narrative creates a similar trauma in opening the movie with the death of the couple’s young daughter. This trauma compounds with the death constantly surrounding Neil and Janet especially with the tragedy of Apollo One. Neil maintains a very stoic facade (as do the men surrounding him), pushing his feelings back and especially keeping them from his wife and children. This restrained and deliberate masculinity is reflected across the male characters throughout the story, creating a definite boys club among the astronauts. They lean on each other to compensate for the ways they don’t open up to their respective spouses.
Meanwhile, Claire Foy puts in a performance which should see her a definite awards contender, yet, she’s decidedly under-utilized in the narrative. Her take is refreshing when looking at the often trodden on character archetype of the supportive wife. While she doesn’t have a lot of screen time, Janet is an active character and finds herself mired in her own story. Her focus doesn’t revolve merely around her husband’s career. Rather, she struggles to raise their two sons with an often (physically and mentally) absent husband.
The strength of both performances peaks early in the third act as Janet stops a distant Neil from sneaking out without saying goodbye. In a powerful moment, she expresses her frustration with him. They lost three of their closest friends just two years earlier. He needs to not only tell their sons goodbye, but that he might not come home. She refuses to be the only parent anymore. Their partnership onscreen is equally powerful in its representation of a real couple. Both wear the stress of their lives on their faces, but their story wraps up in a beautiful moment of unspoken affection. These characters are flawed, complicated, and above all, human.
Stylistically, Chazelle combines with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and a talented sound team to craft a fascinating piece of visual art. The young director’s most recent work on La La Land is so glitzy and colorful, that this movie feels like drastic departure, showing just how versatile a director Chazelle is. Watching frames of First Man, the film looks like something of the period. They aren’t afraid to let their frame look a little scratchy, the color palette looks like something you’d find in a photo album from the late 60s and early 1970s. There’s lots of dark shades, browns, tans, mustard… your father or grandfather probably had shirts just that color in family pictures from the time.
The movie makes fantastic use of sound, finding a dramatic mixture of the pure power of an Apollo rocket, the sheer silence of the moon, and the sound of human emotion. Once again, the swelling scores of other films of this type are left out. These visuals (and above all the characters) aren’t afraid, and are fully able to stand on their own. As Neil Armstrong steps on to the lunar surface, the images don’t need a swelling John Williams like score to elicit emotion, First Man speaks for itself.
Overall, First Man struggles a bit in its construction and pacing. The movie clocks in at a hefty two hours twenty minutes, and it does feel like it at times. The script covers a tremendous amount of ground historically and this can be a little frustrating as a tremendous amount of material could easily benefit from more development. The script is deliberately structured, necessitating the expanse of the story. First Man is a challenging viewing, its tense, it’s emotional, it’s dark at times, and it makes you think. Viewers looking for something light and fun are probably best going elsewhere.
Damien Chazelle has done it again with First Man. The 33 year old director has another solid awards contender to add to his resume, and it’s well-worth the hype. The period piece is a bit of a challenge, but this is bound to be one of the top movies of 2018.
First Man opens today in theaters around the country.
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