MOVIE: FIRST MAN
STARRING: RYAN GOSLING; CLAIRE FOY; KYLE CHANDLER; JASON CLARKE
DIRECTED BY: DAMIEN CHAZELLE
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
First Man is about Neil Armstrong’s historic trip to the moon, but this is a story that is about the journey more than the destination. It’s directed by Damien Chazelle, who made his name to a thunderous drum roll with Whiplash, received Oscar gold for La La Land, and now he’s reaching for the stars, in what I found to be a soaring, epic biopic, about this legendary man who walked on the moon. Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong, delivering a spectacular performance, with a display of just how far man can go when they persevere. First Man is one giant step for cinema.
I don’t say that last phrase as hyperbole, but as the honest truth. What’s so fascinating about First Man is it’s ability to combine various tones, multiple styles, and make it land perfectly together. There’s a bit of the workaholic themes of Whiplash in there, some delightful jazz in the score of Justin Herwitz, a dash of Spielberg style in the films massive collaborative cast, and the operatics of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And while it is all of those things, it is also a portrayal of the work and determination of America to make it to the moon. Every ounce of First Man is earned.
Immediately we are submerged into the workman-like world of Neil Armstrong, a pilot doing test runs for NASA, but reeling from the recent death of his daughter. The way Chazelle shoots this thing is intense from start to finish and Gosling’s performance begins as youthful man looking to touch the stars and morphs into someone who fears for his life. If you don’t like shaky-cam style, you will hate First Man. Linus Sandgren is the cinematographer, shooting the missions in Gemini 8 and the Apollo landing, with the intensity of a war film. The balancing act on the other side of those moments are the quiet scenes, with Armstrong looking up at the moon, with a twinkle in his eye, reminiscing about those he has lost, and the weight of the world on his back.
Not to be overshadowed in First Man, is the work of a first-rate supporting cast, especially Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong. There may not be enough scenes of the supportive wife, I could have used two or three more, but that’s not to say her performance isn’t great. Alongside her spectacular work, is a plethora of character actors, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Corey Stoll as a witty Buzz Aldrin, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, and Jason Clarke as Edward Higgins White. It all comes together in a serious movie, with a serious approach.
Along with the great acting, is the sheer adventure, the danger, and the heroics of it all. First Man makes Apollo 13 look like a Disney movie. Often in films such as The Right Stuff, or Armageddon, or The Martian, we take space travel for granted, as a slick, cool looking Hollywood act. The threat of death is coated in every scene here. Multiple set pieces, involving Armstrong testing landing modules, shoving himself into sardine can pods, and using machinery that could kill him with one wrong switch, all of it is on display. The screenplay from Josh Singer (The West Wing) is extremely in tune with the conundrum for Armstrong to risk his life, his family that sacrifices, and the country that it represents.
At its core, First Man is about Neil Armstrong, as the man who, from the beginning, had a goal of making it to the moon. When we look back at it now, we might think it’s easy to speculate that it never happened, or that we can achieve this with modern day science. What First Man reveals is that it took team work to achieve greatness, the persistence of a man with ice in his veins, and a strong family to support in his pursuit. It also cements Gosling as a booming star and Chazelle as one of cinema’s spectacular auteurs. First Man. First rate.
Written by: Leo Brady