REVIEW: First Man

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Friday, January 25, 2019

Director: Damien Chazelle
Writers: Josh Singer (screenplay), James R. Hansen (based on the book by)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Runtime: 141 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13

      Damien Chazelle wrote and directed one of my favorite films of 2014 (Whiplash) as well as my favorite film of 2016 (La La Land). Both of those movies were absolutely enthralling in completely different ways; about all they have in common is jazz being a centerpiece to both stories. Well, it appears he has forsaken his infatuation with jazz for the allure of American space history (a clear logical progression, right?). Even though he is not the writer this time around, I was excited to see First Man in order to see if Chazelle could further define himself as a versatile director.

       First Man is a dramatic telling of the life of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) in the early days of NASA leading up to the 1969 Moon Landing with a strong focus on the man himself. Many biopics get caught up in showing big historical moments and <insert important famous people> doing <insert famous thing>; such films seem to have this presupposition that they are important simply due to their subject matter without doing anything to earn the audience’s interest on the human level. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” is the oft-quoted sound byte associated with the moon landing. This movie chooses to focus on the former part of that sentence and turns that very small physical step for Armstrong into a very large emotional step in his life that he is able to make by the end of the film. Neil Armstrong is not a hot-shot or a thrill-seeker but rather a man who appears to be constantly struggling with much deep-seated grief all stemming from the death of his 2-year-old daughter. The film is less a run-through of historical events and more of a man’s journey out of emotional darkness with the historical events being incidental. This deeply human aspect of the story is a result of the screenwriter Josh Singer extensively researching the life of Neil Armstrong for years and taking his time to develop the on-screen persona of Neil Armstrong; from there, Ryan Gosling’s excellent performance and Chazelle’s sharp direction make him into a very convincing character. From what I’ve read, the portrayal of Armstrong is largely spot-on.

      For all the space flight sequences, Chazelle made the wise choice to focus on capturing the feeling of being inside the spacecraft; in fact, the amount of closeups far outnumbers the amount of wide shots. You as the viewer are almost always jammed either right inside the cockpit or hanging on for dear life outside the vessel. The feeling of confinement and the jarring, nauseating nature of launching into space are captured seamlessly through a combination of intense closeups of the individuals inside the cockpit, point-of-view shots with heavy breathing, externally mounted hull cameras showing the mechanical feats of aerospace engineering at work, and all sorts of quick cuts; all the while, the camera is shaking with vigorous fury. Even outside of the flight sequences, the editing is purposefully jarring throughout to reflect how Neil’s profession reverberates into every aspect of his life. The goal of the visual presentation isn’t to frame paintings; it is attempting to give the audience a visceral experience. In tandem with the camerawork is impeccable sound design: it is punishingly noisy within earth’s atmosphere when appropriate and utterly silent when in the vacuum of space. As for the music, Justin Hurwitz (La La Land) has once again constructed a fantastic score that highlights the thematic and emotional beats of the story wherever it is used. The production design is superb in that the costumes and sets convincingly recreate the look of the 1960s down to the details; the film was shot on 16mm and the amount of grain in every shot helps add to the feeling of the time period. I won’t spoil anything but there is one sequence that is shot in 70mm IMAX (that I unfortunately did not get to see in a true IMAX theater) but you can tell how powerfully it contrasts with the 16mm, immersing you in the movie’s emotional climax.

      Though I never lost interest, the film drags a bit in parts and overall is a tad too long. The biggest issue was that I didn’t find any of the performances in this film particularly memorable outside of Gosling’s, though none of the acting was poor. Despite those drawbacks, this film is expertly-crafted and maintains consistent level of quality throughout its runtime. I never felt bored or felt cheaply manipulated. Though First Man is quite different and direct comparisons are difficult, it is not quite as captivating as either of Chazelle’s other two major films but he has set a high bar for himself. If the subject matter interests you, make sure to see this one; even if it doesn’t, this film should keep you fascinated in its visceral and emotional exploration of an enigmatic figure from American history.

RATING: ★★★★

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