First Man (2018)

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke

Screenplay: Josh Singer

141 mins. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.

 

Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) is working pretty hard to make up for the disappointing and embarrassing situation at the Oscars in 2017. This year, he returns with the wildly ambitious biographical drama First Man.

First Man chronicles the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine, Blade Runner 2049) in the eight years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission, where Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. During that time, Armstrong experienced great loss in his personal and professional life, and the relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Unsane, TV’s The Crown). It also encompasses many of the trials, training, and missions that were required to get to the moon.

Chazelle really excels with his character development. His strengths are characters that have trouble connecting to other people. He tends to have characters who are driven by a specific goal and cannot see how that goal is affecting those around them. The relationship between Neil and Janet is so strongly built and examined in the film so that we as viewers can watch them strain and test their marriage with Armstrong’s excessive drive to complete his mission. Neil is running from the pain of loss in his life and as he gets closer and closer to achieving his goal, he finds that the losses continue to pile.

The film is magnificently shot. This is one of the most beautifully filmed pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year. The visuals are aged and elegant and they capture the feeling of the time. The gorgeous visuals are matched and juxtaposed with actual audio and video from the time. He uses this to convey a new sense of the time. So many films about the space program push for an America Pride angle with their imagery. Chazelle instead chose to show how pain and difficulty comes with this mission, and how many Americans viewed it at the time. The question of whether or not this Space Race was worth it becomes a central argument in First Man, and it fits very well with the story that Chazelle is telling.

The controversy about the flag plays in here quite heavily. It’s not really spoilery to say that we will see Armstrong on the moon at some point in the film, and when he does, I feel like many expected to see an American flag firmly planted on the moon’s surface, and while the flag is visible, it is not directly focused on. Some have complained about this (people who hadn’t seen the film yet and wanted something to be mad about), but again, Chazelle’s focus seems to be on the impact for Mankind and also on Armstrong’s personal journey.

First Man is the first Universal Pictures film to use IMAX cameras, and they are only used for the lunar sequences, but those sequences just left me…breathless. I felt like I was actually on the moon with Armstrong. If you get the chance, see First Man in IMAX. It is worth it.

The other area where Chazelle has an edge is his endings. All of his movies that I’ve seen have had such awe-inspiring endings, and First Man, while quiet and subtle, has an excellent ending that shows what was most important to Chazelle: character.

I have so many things to say about First Man as I unravel more of what I saw, but this was quite an experience. The pacing was one area that seemed to be a struggle for me. Even though I loved the slow-burn, I felt as though the movie could have trimmed maybe 10-15 minutes, but overall, this is a tremendous achievement for Chazelle, who is just killing it right now. See this one in theaters.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, click here.

For my review of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, click here.

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