Review: First Man

by Andrew Parker
First Man

A personal, terrestrial, and sometimes even bracingly experimental look at the historical race to reach the moon, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a technically dazzling and dramatically satisfying work from one of this generation’s finest filmmakers. With only a handful of credits to his name thus far and an already an Oscar to show for it all, Chazelle continues to grow and evolve as an artist, with First Man becoming yet another marvelous achievement. It’s a delicately constructed film that strips away any sense of artifice, iconography, and hagiography to tell the story of a single human being’s role in one of mankind’s greatest feats of science and engineering. It’s rousing, riveting, and aside from a few lapses into melodramatic territory, First Man captivates by framing such accomplishments with restraint and realism. It’s neck and neck with The Right Stuff for the title of “Best Motion Picture About Astronauts,” and that’s some excellent company to be in.

First Man focuses on the career of famed astronaut, pilot, and engineer Neil Armstrong, played with a stiff upper lip and unwavering confidence by Ryan Gosling. The film opens years before the Apollo 11 mission was a go, with Armstrong struggling and failing to gain control over a supersonic plane that’s forcing him higher and higher into space. The danger and tension associated with putting human beings into space is immediately apparent, but so too is Armstrong’s determination to help find ways to make such accomplishments a reality. Not everyone at NASA believes in Armstrong’s capabilities as a potential astronaut once he applies to become a part of Project Gemini, but they believe in his intelligence and doggedness, especially when their attempts result in catastrophic setbacks. His unflappable demeanour under pressure would become one of NASA’s greatest assets, but also a personality trait that constantly leaves his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), concerned for her husband’s safety.

With First Man, Chazelle wants to examine not only the hard work and lives lost en route to the biggest accomplishment in the American aerospace industry, but the emotions felt by everyone involved. Curiously, Chazelle is able to do that even when the main character of his narrative rarely lets other know when something’s bothering him. It’s not that Neil Armstrong doesn’t pay attention to the concerns of others, but that he’s clearly not processing things the same way as his colleagues. He’s not emotionless, but outside of a few moments early on where he grieves losses in his life, Armstrong’s resolve and dedication to the cause only intensifies over time, even when his job becomes exponentially more dangerous. He bottles things up until he explodes, but those explosions are his way of coping with his job, and in that depiction, Chazelle finds a way to humanize someone that’s been placed on an historically high pedestal for years. The viewer might not have the same type of personality as Neil Armstrong, but they definitely know someone like him.

Gosling responds to Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer’s adaptation of James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong in kind. Gosling portrays Neil as a mildly social person who values those around him, but never makes a spectacle of himself. Neil would rather keep his head down and fade into the background at first, and it’s only when he gets deeper into his work and the program’s losses begin to take their toll that starts to drive him further inside himself. Some of the film’s finest low key scenes involve a quietly irate Armstrong clenching his jaw through press conferences and triggering questions that he doesn’t want to answer. Every setback and pain in his life forces Armstrong to put up another wall, and none of them will start to come down until his goals have been realized. Gosling’s performance is one that builds towards a stunning and moving moment of catharsis. In many respects, First Man is about personal relief more than historical accomplishment, and Gosling’s thoughtfully plotted out performance provides the emotional core of Chazelle’s work.

The family stuff between Foy and Gosling takes a backseat to many of the larger issues at play in First Man, but it’s richly detailed and boasts a humanizing aspect that the film would have been missing otherwise. If one subscribes to the outmoded philosophy stating that there’s a great woman behind every good man, Foy’s Janet would assuredly be that grounding, level-headed, and passionate figurehead one would be talking about. Unafraid to speak her mind to her frequently unfazed, but constantly listening husband, some of Foy’s dialogue swings for the fences with its obviousness, but the actress embodies what could have been a thankless part with equal parts grace and fire, becoming one of the most captivating elements of the film. If Neil is meant to be a bit of a stoic and his friendships are all with similarly minded professionals, his relationship to Janet and his sons provide the emotional grounding that tethers him to the Earth.

Plenty of character actors show up to make brief, but lasting impressions – including Kyle Chandler and Ciarán Hinds as Neil’s superiors, Jason Clarke as his closest male friend, and Corey Stoll as an arrogant and cocky Buzz Aldrin – but Chazelle remains focused on Armstrong’s uniquely dealt with personal struggles and the mounting of some jaw dropping visuals and heart-stopping set pieces. It’s a smart move that not only showcases Chazelle’s remarkable technical acumen, but also helps to paper over some of the shortcomings in Singer’s screenplay, which allows plenty of quirks, but precious little depth for any characters that aren’t Neil or Janet.

Aided masterfully by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who’s no stranger to adopting unusual and elaborate filming techniques for his directors, Chazelle approximates the look and feel of something made in the late 1960s rather brilliantly. Utilizing numerous different forms of film stock in the film’s Earth based moments, First Man displays a sense of authenticity throughout that never strikes as phony or overthought. Every visual decision has clearly been reasoned and discussed at great length, and nothing seems out of place or overly fussed over. It could be dismissed by some as feeling rigid, but Armstrong was a rather rigid person who worked in a rigid profession, so such a backhanded observation should be taken as a compliment in this case.

Whenever First Man travels to space (which were shot in IMAX optimized formatting), the results are the best scenes of celestial travel and experimentation in the history of cinema. If The Right Stuff has a better overall script and set of characters than First Man, Chazelle’s film blows Philip Kaufman’s already impressive work out of the skies. Moments spent with astronauts inside their capsules, rockets, and jets are appropriately pulse-racing and claustrophobic. The terror leading up to a launch and frightening setbacks that occur during missions (especially one where Armstrong’s capsule starts spinning wildly out of control) are made almost too realistic by Chazelle. The visuals and Chazelle’s newfound knack for crafting large scale suspense makes Gosling’s performance even more outstanding, with the actor providing a calming force for the audience to latch onto during some truly harrowing moments.

First Man also elicits favourable comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most of us have never been to space, and by all accounts from the people lucky enough to have travelled beyond our atmosphere, the experience is rather surreal. Chazelle balances scientific details about space that we already know with a sense of experimental wonderment. There’s an enormity to being in space that very few filmmakers have been able to appropriately capture and utilize in a dramatic sense. Chazelle has done that, while simultaneously emphasizing how vast, distancing, and undefinable the experience of being there must feel like.

Chazelle’s storytelling and visual sensibilities provide viewers of First Man with a carefully curated emotional experience and visual spectacular. It recreates the feeling of getting caught up in the U.S./Russian race to be the first people on the moon, and makes room for people who were enthralled by the decision and those who thought the massive amount of money being spent on the program was wasteful during one of America’s most formative and fraught decades. First Man is the rare example of a film that can make viewers feel multiple emotions at the same time. Knowing how it all ends doesn’t impede how easy it is to become invested in these people and their work. Like the giant leap for mankind it depicts, First Man is one heck of an accomplishment.

First Man opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, October 12, 2018.

Check out the trailer for First Man:

This film was screened as part of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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