Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber, Corey Stoll, Cory Michael Smith, Jason Clarke and Patrick Fugit.
Synopsis: On the heels of their six-time Academy Award®-winning smash, La La Land, director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling reteam for Universal Pictures’ First Man, 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.
With La La Land and Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle established himself as one of the most talented and driven filmmakers in Hollywood. His latest film, which tells the inspiring story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and mankind’s mission to the moon, proves to be his most sophisticated, powerful and compelling work so far.
First Man works for a number of reasons, but the films biggest strength is undoubtedly Damien Chazelle’s pitch-perfect direction. From the opening frame to the closing moment, it’s clear that Chazelle had a specific vision for the movie, which was to place the audience in Neil’s shoes and have us experience these exhilarating and terrifying events as if we were going to the moon ourselves. While we’ve seen multiple versions of this story before, including the real thing, Chazelle differentiates his by exploring Neil on a deeper level, showing him not only as an American hero but as a father and a husband as well. The director should also be praised for giving a more intimate and grounded account of the events, as well as a more realistic and brutal portrayal of space travel in the 1960’s.
While it’s difficult to compare First Man to Chazelle’s previous work, as this film is so tonally and visually different, it’s clear that the director’s ability behind the camera is only improving. Working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who also worked on La La Land, Chazelle does a fantastic job of giving First Man a unique visual look, and the documentary style that the director has adopted for this story, only makes the harshness of space travel feel more violent and scary. By placing the audience in Neil’s shoes, Chazelle and Sandgren have ensured that we feel every bump, hear every screw grind and feel the danger that came with every test, launch, and crash. Sandgren’s cinematography also offers plenty of beautiful and breathtaking moments, such as the epic-scale launch and the emotional landing sequence, which is a “must watch” in IMAX.
Ryan Gosling, who made a name for himself portraying stoic and detached characters, is outstanding as Neil Armstrong. While on the outside this character might seem cold and emotionless, there’s a lot of pain and heartbreak bubbling under the surface, and Gosling does an excellent job of presenting both sides of the historical legend. Claire Foy, who portrays Neil’s wife, Janet, is often left to carry the emotional weight of the film and The Crown actor delivers an outstanding and scene-stealing performance, which will undoubtedly earn her a nomination. While First Man has a clear focus on Neil Armstrong’s personal journey and his relationship with Janet, the film is also packed with some notable performances from supporting actors. Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin), Patrick Fugit and Jason Clarke (Ed White) help to fill the cast, and each of them offers a memorable and powerful performance.
The score, which has been composed by Justin Hurwitz, perfectly enhances the powerful, bombastic and utterly personal style of Chazelle’s film. While the director uses silence to create some of the most memorable and emotional moments in the movie, the score, which sounds suspiciously like a ticking clock, helps to intensify the more stressful, heart-pounding and epic sequences, including the launch scene and Neil’s arrival on the moon.
For the most part, Chazelle, Gosling and Foy manage to keep us entertained and compelled throughout the films extensive runtime, however, it should be noted that the film stalls ever so slightly in the second act and there are moments that the story could have done without. Thankfully, the mesmerising, emotional and epic finale, which rivals some of the best in the genre, more than compensate for the loss of momentum.
Minor issues aside, First Man is an outstanding achievement for everyone involved. Damien Chazelle has delivered his most sophisticated, compelling and emotional film, and the young director has managed to tell an utterly personal and exhilarating story about a husband, and a father, which acknowledges and respects how significant, dangerous and inspiring the moon landing was for humanity.