At a mere 33 years old, David Chazelle has done what only a very select few filmmakers have successfully done: struck gold three consecutive times. With Whiplash, Chazelle told an intimate and personal journey of one man and his love for drumming. La La Land was Chazelle’s love letter to classic Hollywood and jazz while also showcasing a young couple chasing their respective dreams. Now, in 2018, the famed filmmaker is back with First Man, his biggest and most ambitious project yet. The feature, which details the lunar landings, is without a doubt, Chazelle at his very best as he takes the massive stakes of the mission and blends it seamlessly with the small narrative of one man: Neil Armstrong.
First Man chronicles the riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969. A visceral, first-person account based on the book by James R. Hansen, the movie will explore the sacrifices and the cost—on Armstrong and on the nation—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
From the opening moments of the film, it is clear that Chazelle’s intention for First Man was to ground the huge mission. The stakes had never been higher for the United States as they were locked in the Space Race with the Soviet Union; and they were losing at every turn. Instead of showcasing every moment through the eyes of NASA, the story is told from the perspectives of its brave astronauts, specifically Armstrong. Through these men — the audience is given a true sense of the dangers and horrors faced during this time period. While the mission to the moon is treated as a huge moment in history, the work that led to it being successful is truly terrifying. In every scene you are on the edge of your seat because you, much like the astronaut, are unclear as to whether death will come knocking today.
Moreover, one of the film’s prevailing themes is death. First Man opens with Karen Armstrong’s death (Neil’s 2 year old daughter). Neil is greatly impacted by her passing and from there, it gets worse before it could ever think of getting better. Neil is forced to live through the deaths of various NASA friends at the hands of the many trials and tribulations that led to Apollo 11. The script, written by Josh Singer, does an excellent job of sucking you into the absolute fear of boarding a space craft. This was not a fun adventure for these men. But with every death, it only pushed Neil further into the job, at one point even saying “we need to fail down here so we can succeed up there.”
Visually, Fist Man is a film that rivals films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar. With every journey past the stratosphere, viewers are treated to arguably the most stunning sequences of the year. This is where Chazelle, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, get to truly stretch their legs. While both men make use of close-up shots on its characters to pull you into the emotion they’re feeling, wide shots are utilized (and saved) to showcase the vast beauty of space.
Sandgren laced the film in a gritty reality that works to enhance Chazelle’s vision. This is a film full of handheld close-ups that rock and shake with the ship’s launch and flight, sometimes with only a tiny amount of light being let in. Again, this is all in service of putting the audience inside the mindset of these astronauts, and in terms of crafting the claustrophobic, chilling vision, Sandgren’s work is incredible.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is Ryan Gosling’s turn as Armstrong. This is not the type of eye-catching, flashy, or cry-heavy performance that is usually a lock for Oscar season. In its place, Gosling digs deep into Armstrong’s quiet, modest manner. It’s a very heartfelt, subtle performance, and what Gosling does is nothing short of tremendous. Through genius camera work and sound editing as well, Gosling is able to create a very personal narrative for Armstrong, one where we truly care for the main risking it all to achieve something greater than ever imagined.
The supporting cast of First Man all get their chance in the light as well with Jason Clarke showcasing arguably his best performance to date. In the role of Ed White (the first man to walk in space), Clarke is able to give viewers a way into the man that is Neil Armstrong. He is calm, collected and despite his fears of the unknown, excited about what exploration of space could mean for the future. Kyle Chandler is once again great as he plays Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, who became NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office. Deke is the man in charge of it all and aside from Neil, the one who is faced with the guilt of every man losing their life on NASA’s countless missions. While tough, Slayton has to remain clam in every crisis that faces him and Chandler is able to showcase this nicely.
Hot off her success with Netflix’s The Crown, Claire Foy plays the role of Janet Armstrong, the film’s female lead and Neil’s wife. While her character is mostly regulated to the role of nagging/concerned wife, Janet is actually the character the audience will probably most identify with. It is through her where every thought about the manned mission to the moon comes to light. The fear, dread, anger and despair are all in focus as Janet remains concerned that her husband may actually not return from his trip. It may not be a complex role, but it is one of the most important and Foy is without-a-doubt the film’s breakout actress.
Justin Hurwitz, the man behind the scores for Chazelle’s last two films, reunites with the director here again and his music for First Man is masterwork. The tender, melodic notes through echoes, reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith in the 70’s and Hans Zimmer’s work in Interstellar are done with such a delicate hand as Hurwitz is able capture the true meaning of exploration. And not only that but the minute the rocket enters space, Hurwitz bursts back onto the screen with thunderous music from the brass as the rocket thrusts full power towards the white rock in the sky. It is a beautiful blend of soft, string-based songs and pulse-pounding horns and brass and consider Hurwitz a lock for a best original score nomination this year.
I saw First Man two days ago and it was honestly a film I had to sit with before actually writing this review. There are literally dozens of moments in First Man that I’ll be replaying in my head and thinking about for a while, like the violent, anxiety-inducing opening set-piece when Armstrong manning an X-15 tries over and over again to rip through the Earth’s atmosphere or the sight of Armstrong learning that his best friend Ed White had died in an accident. Damien Chazelle has achieved something truly remarkable with this film as he takes a mission of this size and turns it into the small-scale adventure of one man. Even though the audience knows what the ending of this film will be, the question of “is it worth?” will constantly remain in your brain. Chazelle is able to push this question to its upmost limit but in the end, man did indeed walk on the moon; and it was a beautiful, defining moment in the history of our planet. With great performances, stunning visuals and a beautiful musical score, First Man cements its place as not only one of the best space films ever, but one of the most profound biopics in recent history.
Rating – 9/10
First Man flies into theatres on October 12, 2018