Academy Award winning director, Damien Chazelle uniquely provides a behind the scenes look into one of the most important moments in our country’s history. First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his journey to taking the first steps on the moon. It’s beautifully told, emotionally stirring and a visually jarring experience. A story that feels so familiar is told with a completely fresh perspective that is truly masterful.
The screenplay written by Josh Singer, provides an interesting look into a very familiar story. You may not know the specific details behind the moon landing but nevertheless it is one that we’re all aware of. As the film moves forward I found myself completely overwhelmed by all that it took to get the astronauts there, until now I had never actually thought about the sacrifice from their families and the realization that this was the moon they’re talking about! First Man is a thoughtful look into the pressure and turmoil facing the astronauts versus a simple retelling of the grand adventure that it appeared to be from the outside. Something that I appreciated in Singer’s screenplay is that this film is noticeably quiet at times. Some of the most powerful moments in the film are moments where there is little to no sound at all. This created so much tension that you almost forget to breathe.
In addition to Singer’s screenplay, Chazelle’s direction played a large part in the creative telling behind this film. One of the biggest things I noticed was how he made the decision to focus not only on what’s happening on the inside for the characters but also inside the spacecraft. Space is a setting that has been shown over and over again. Thanks to a variety of films, a rocket launching into space has become increasingly less fascinating. When you’re repeatedly exposed to something no matter how spectacular you start to undervalue its magnitude. Chazelle appears to be well aware of this and follows the film’s theme. As the astronauts are propelling into the sky the audience only gets to see what they are seeing. This so cleverly creates anticipation and builds anxiety regardless of you knowing the final outcome.
Another way the introspective theme reappears is in the cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Each shot feels perfectly placed with a fair balance between still and shaky camera work. The shaky camera feels authentic and offers a first hand perspective that doesn’t feel fabricated. The best example of this happens during the moon landing. The cinematography is at its best here, the shaky camera puts you inside the spacecraft, it’s claustrophobic, incredibly intense and reminds you just how dangerous of a mission it was. Once they land on the moon the wide-angle shots are simply beautiful. These shots provide that same personal account that’s used so well throughout the rest of the film. While there are plenty of memorable wide shots some of my favorites were the close tight shots on the actors faces. I love the subtleties in the actor’s eyes and this highlighted them. There were a few other small details that pull you into the film and add to the overall experience. There was very little music but what music there was felt straight out of the time period. The same can be said for the look of the film. It was like I was watching my grandparents’ discolored, grainy home videos.
Even though there’s plenty that I’ll remember from First Man the performances can be added to the top of the list. Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances as Neil Armstrong. When we think of American heroes we tend to think of them as larger than life characters. Gosling’s performance brings humanity. It’s a quiet role; so much of his performance is reserved to showing his inner turmoil and grief all throughout his body. He’s guarded, pours himself into his work and struggles to articulate his feelings. Gosling demonstrates so well the physical toll that the race to the moon was having on him and the other astronauts. His reservation also has a large impact on his wife and sons. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) is also struggling with large amounts of grief as their family experiences their own tragedy. Like Gosling, Foy also gives a powerful performance without even saying much at all. Foy holds her own with Gosling and her presence reminds you that it was not just the astronauts who sacrificed themselves for the mission but their families as well. One of my favorite scenes between these two comes after Neil’s walk on the moon. He’s quarantined in a room to himself and Janet comes to visit. Separated by glass the two of them don’t speak a word. There’s a real intimacy and history between the two of them while they sit across from each other.
Damien Chazelle may be a relatively new director and First Man continues to demonstrate that he is a director with an incredibly unique voice, worthy of paying attention to. This is a beautifully human film. This introspective look into such a significant time in America’s history is one that will stick with me for a long time.
5 out of 5 stars
Director: Damien Chazelle Writers: Josh Singer Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler Release Date: October 12th Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 2 hours and 21 minutes