On a certain level, the prospect of a biopic about Neil Armstrong doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting cinematic experience.
After all, it’s not as if we don’t all know the story. However, First Man is not necessarily the film that you might expect. Oh sure, all the iconic touchstones are there and the general space race structure almost feels like a sequel to The Right Stuff. However, director Damien Chazelle (fresh off his Oscar win for La-La Land and not that far removed from his debut Whiplash) has a very specific vision for the film in mind that’s difficult to predict.
Sure, this is a stunning work of cinematic spectacle, yet also an incredibly intimate piece of storytelling. It’s a very personal exploration of Neil Armstrong in the middle of his historic journey and that puts you deep inside his head and also captures the early (and incredibly dangerous) space travel so viscerally in a variety of formats (leading up to jaw-dropping IMAX immersion) that you truly get a sense of what it feels like to be trapped in those metal tubes in the vastness of space right along Armstrong. The effect is stunning. First Man will be remembered as one of the finest films of 2018 and deservingly so.
Wasting approximately no time, the film opens with Neil Armstrong (looking suspiciously like Ryan Gosling) blasting through the atmosphere in a rickety rocket that feels like it could fall apart at any time. Damien Chazelle immediately establishes the tone for how his space sequences will go. Cameras are crammed into the tightest of spaces, jittering alongside the shaking machines, the sound designed filled with discomforting noises of grinding metal and loosening screws. Of course Armstrong ends up nailing the mission. Obviously. Lots of applause. And then the pioneer astronaut with the hangdog face goes home. His daughter is dying of cancer. It’s devastating and so Armstrong responds they way all men of his era did, buy burying his emotions and focusing on work.
Soon NASA heightens the space race to plop a man on the moon and Armstrong lands on spot on the team. It’s all gruelling stuff that Chazelle continues to film intensely through with subjective realism. A variety of recognizable character actors are introduced in supporting astronaut roles, mostly so that audiences have some sort of affinity for them before they die. That happens a lot. It bothers Armstrong, yet mostly just allows him to withdraw further into himself despite the fears n’ anxieties of his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his children. The more dangerous and/or important the missions get the more Armstrong closes off. It certainly helps with the missions, but doesn’t seem like a great way to go through life. Based on an official biography of the first man on the moon, it’s all true too.
The mixture of grandiose pioneering space adventures and intimate character drama continues throughout and defines First Man. It’s an intriguing combination, one that proves surprisingly powerful. On the spectacle side Damien Chazelle mixes a variety of film media from 8mm to IMAX for a variety of effects. Every mission is different and deadly in some way. By the time that Neil Armstrong (spoiler alert) lands on the moon, the sense of wonder, isolation, beauty, and accomplishment is so overwhelmingly emotional that tears will flow even from the eyesockets of viewers who couldn’t give a crap about this stuff.
The personal drama remains intimate, pained, and repressed. It’s an ideal use of Ryan Gosling’s silent n’ stoic persona that’s he’s brought to films like Drive and Blade Runner 2049. If anything his Armstrong is even more withdrawn that those two stylized genre movie archetypes. Here that sad silences are all with a purpose and when his emotions finally break free at an unexpected time…good god it hurts.
The whole movie holds a deep well of emotion that’s rather unexpected for this type of story and movie. Somehow in First Man Damien Chazelle has crafted a grand and epic film about the first man on the moon that feels small, intimate, and personal. It shouldn’t be possible. Yet here we are. As a result, the film is a stunner that’ll make your jaw drop and your heartache. There will have to be a historically amazing number of incredible films dropping over the next few months to prevent First Man from being crowned as one of the finest cinematic achievements. See it on the biggest and loudest screen possible. You won’t regret it.