There’s something about space exploration that lends itself so well to the silver screen. Whether it’s dealing in the metaphysical like 2001: A Space Odyssey or factual events like Apollo 13, the translation to being that of a narrative feature is something not many have failed at, at least not on a high-profile project and at least not one that I can think of. Perhaps it’s just the inherent wonder in the average human being projected onto the material that makes it so compelling, or perhaps it’s just the fact that the blackest canvas is a cinematographer’s wet dream to work with and thus can never yield a poor rendering. There’s a reason Gravity won seven goddamn Academy Awards, all of which being technical. And speaking of an awards season sure-thing comes Damien Chazelle’s fourth feature First Man, which chronicles the career of Neil Armstrong at NASA, Armstrong being best known for being the titular first man to walk on the moon following the successful expedition of the Apollo 11 mission. And it’s surprising to note there hasn’t been a biopic covering such a monumental person and event in American history. Although the film isn’t entirely interested in the cultural significance of the event itself, there being little to add to alter public perception of it in the near fifty years since its occurrence. Rather, this is first and foremost a Neil Armstrong movie, determined to look into the man behind the suit that people aren’t entirely familiar with, being brought to life a Ryan Gosling who has never been more solemn but just as earnest as ever. And alongside him is Claire Foy in the role of Janet Armstrong, who embodies the impact Neil’s exploits and his bridled emotionality had on the world around him. Both are wholly solid, but primary praise should be directed at director Damien Chazelle, who proves he is a rising talent to be reckoned with following his equally affecting yet distinct Whiplash and La La Land. I’d be hard pressed to declare which of his outings is superior, as they’re all ostensibly perfect, and First Man only complicates the matter in the best way possible. His visual and thematic sensibilities grounds the production without robbing it of its mystical majesty during the Apollo sequences, complementing but not emulating like films such as Apollo 13. It’s unfortunate that unfounded controversies and general audience disinterest regarding this film has kept people from flocking to it, but do not wait until it hits digital. Go see it while it’s still playing because it is absolutely transcendent.
Taking place throughout the 1960’s, First Man documents the personal and professional lives of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), and how one affects the other. He and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) mourn the loss of their two-year-old daughter Karen as she succumbs to a brain tumor. Meanwhile, the Cold War rages on, as the Soviet Union makes great strides in space exploration, forcing the Americans at NASA to up the ante by making plans to be the first to land on the moon. Neil applies and is accepted into Project Gemini, prompting his family to relocate to Houston. However, the journey to the moon from conception to actuality proves to be long and perilous, taking a toll on Neil and his relationship with Janet and his remaining sons.
If you were hoping for a jingoistic, triumphant portrayal of one of the greatest achievements in American history, I’m sorry to disappoint you, because this film isn’t interested in improperly valorizing anyone in the hope of pandering to any subset of viewership. To preface, First Man has come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum, the left decrying it of its lack of racial diversity in its cast, and the right incredulous to the absence of a shot depicting Neil planting the American flag into the moon’s surface. Now, I don’t think I have to say a whole lot regarding the former’s grief, as yes, diversity is important in human society, but unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot of that in the space program back then, and historical accuracy demands just that, accuracy. Not everything can be Hidden Figures. As for the latter, while the flag iconography is an integral part of the mission, this isn’t the story of the mission. This is the story of Neil Armstrong, who, if you’ll do your research, didn’t see himself as an American hero, that being subsequently projected onto him by third parties. And while it would have been technically feasible to show him plant it, it would have robbed the denouement of its emotional impact. We already know the national significance the event has, and First Man does well to focus rather on the human significance, particularly through the lens of one man, the first man.
But it would have been nothing without the sharp eye of Damien Chazelle behind the camera. Not that he had to prove himself following his preceding efforts, but he nevertheless finds a way to expand upon his directorial talents by tapping in to and mastering a whole other mood and style that perfectly suits the subject matter. It’s one thing to capture the raw pathos of a well acted drama and frame it in such a light that evokes the right response, which he does, but he’s deftly able to give weight to the astronautical elements in a way that no film has done before it. One could argue that 2001 and Interstellar benefit from their theoretical science lending a similar sense of gravity (the emotional kind), those are both so far in the realm of science-fiction that I refute the notion of them being comparable. That of course would beget Apollo 13 being brought back into the conversation, it also being an authentic depiction of human events, but while that film also has its merits, never before has practical space travel felt quite so grounded and visceral, despite Apollo 11 being the actual successful mission. Not only that, but Chazelle, along with his La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren, are able to conjure the kind of breathtaking imagery that actually makes you believe you’re up there with Armstrong. While some may question the film’s sedate pacing, especially in those scenes, it is exactly that discipline and attention to detail and atmosphere (also the emotional kind) that makes the overall product so astonishing.
Now let’s dig in to the meat and potatoes of the major takeaways audiences will have after viewing it, namely the billed cast. While I can’t exactly speak to the accuracy of Gosling’s likeness to Armstrong, Armstrong being largely a prominent figure prior to my birth, he delivers exactly the kind of distant pathos the script demanded of him; not dispassionate, but stoic, with a flurry of emotions gestating underneath the surface. It’s definitely not the lionizing depiction of Armstrong audiences will be expecting, but one that perhaps does him even better justice by portraying him first and foremost as a human being with both virtues and faults. Similarly grounded a performance but with perhaps a bit more vulnerability is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, who has been having a banner breakout year in cinema between this, Unsane and the upcoming Girl in the Spider’s Web. While her role could have been nothing more than the “supporting wife” archetype, she and the screenplay bring the character to vivacious life by depicting her as a strong but realistic woman with quite the emotional burden to carry. Special mention should also go to a steadfast supporting cast consisting of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll, to name a few, who may not get the chance to flex their acting chops but are regardless just as reliable to provide foil to the leads. If we’re talking awards buzz, I’d pin both Gosling and Foy as soft favorites to garner nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Foy would be the one more likely to win of the two, but I still wouldn’t count on either of them bringing home Oscar gold. At least not for this picture.
Still, expect First Man to clean up in the technical categories, getting nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Adapted Screenplay (Josh Singer), Best Original Score (Justin Hurwitz), Best Cinematography (Linus Sandgren), and Best Film Editing (Tom Cross), in addition to all those obscure ones people don’t care about like Sound. While history says it’ll miss out on a couple of those nominations, expect this to be the one leading the pack, as it has Academy Awards written all over it. And as far as I’m concerned, First Man has usurped Hereditary as my favorite film of the year, with good odds at staying there come January. It is so magnificent an experience it ensures that my proverbial hard-on for all things Damien Chazelle will continue for years to come. Seriously, do not let the haters who haven’t even seen it dissuade you; go see this movie.
Final Score: 10/10