REVIEW: “First Man”

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As “La La Land” showed us Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle have a pretty strong actor/director chemistry. They attempt to tap into it once again with “First Man”, a biopic of the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The film has received critical acclaim throughout the festival circuit but also faced a bit of undeserved controversy over the decision to not show the iconic planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface.

The film is an adaptation of James Hanson’s 2005 biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”. Clint Eastwood was the first to show interest in making the movie, planning to both produce and direct the film for Warner Bros. But it soon fell into ‘development hell’ before being resuscitated by Universal and Dreamworks. Screenwriter Josh Singer (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Spotlight”) writes the script with Chazelle directing. Talk about an exciting combination.

 

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“First Man” comes at Neil Armstrong’s life from an interesting angle. It covers roughly 8 years, from his time as a NASA test pilot to his historic Apollo 11 moon landing. But the film’s main focus is on the man himself and it views most things through a very personal lens. And even though we get a look into Armstrong’s life, by the end of the film he remains a bit of an enigma although an intensely sympathetic one. I loved that about the movie.

I’ve always found there to be a dryness to Ryan Gosling’s acting and it’s the material that often dictates the effectiveness of his performances. He turns out to be a perfect fit for Neil Armstrong, portrayed here as a humble man of few words who feels as distant and unexplored as the space outside our atmosphere. Gosling’s consistent restraint only adds to his character’s complexity. It’s through Chazelle’s camera (often in tight closeups of Gosling’s face) that we get clues to what Armstrong is feeling. Meaningful subtleties in Gosling’s expressions portray grief, fear, determination, even exhilaration.

Chazelle has shown a fascination with the idea of obsession. In “Whiplash” it was with drumming. In “La La Land” is was with jazz. Armstrong’s obsession is with his work but it’s rooted in something deeper. Very early in the film Neil and his wife Janet (a terrific Claire Foy) lose their 2-year-old daughter Karen to cancer. That shadow looms over the entire film as Neil buries himself in his work to keep from dealing with his loss. It’s what drives his determination.

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At the same time it adds an undeserved burden on Janet. A huge chunk of the film looks at the domestic side of Armstrong’s life. These scenes are far more than emotional filler. They show us the flip-side of Neil’s sorrow-fueled obsession. Foy is nothing short of superb here – showing Janet as supportive of her husband but slowly losing patience with his detachment. At the same time she lives under the constant fear that her husband could die on any given day.

In one of my favorite choices, Chazelle shoots the space sequences almost exclusively from the astronaut’s perspectives, avoiding the grand effects-driven spectacles we might expect. These scenes are sensory experiences, relying on movement, sound, and a camera that is mostly inside the tight confined cockpits with the astronauts. These scenes are intensely claustrophobic and relay the sense of tension and danger.

Look no further than the incredible opening sequence. During a test flight Neil finds his X-15 “bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere” before bursting back through and landing in the Mojave Desert. It’s a pulse-pounding scene of roaring engines, whirling gauges and fiercely vibrating metal. The mix of sound and close-quartered cameras is a good primer for the bigger sequences to come.

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Of course one of those scenes the film’s big finale. In one of the biggest non-spoiler spoilers Neil Armstrong does indeed walk on the moon. The brilliant final 20 minutes features the same stressful ferocity but also a striking use of silence. The scene is the closest the film comes to giving us an emotional release and offers new meaning to Neil’s iconic first steps on the moon. Chazelle doesn’t romanticize these moments. They are intimate and personal which I believe invalidates the entire flag “controversy”. But for those still unconvinced, we do get shots of the flag on the moon and in numerous other places around the movie.

While Gosling and Foy are the stars there is a wonderful supporting cast that help fill out their story – Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Ciarán Hinds and a host of other recognizable faces and good performances.

There are so many other things I love about “First Man”. I love Chazelle faithful Justin Hurwitz’s score which truly came alive after a second viewing. I love that the film doesn’t feel the need to hold our hand and explain every detail of the science or technology. I love that this reluctant hero is portrayed as a human being and not a pop culture icon. I love its apolitical focus which seems consistent with the astronauts who isolated themselves from the culture to focus on their missions. But most of all I love that it makes its own rules when it comes to storytelling. This is what happens when a biopic doesn’t cater to formula or expectations. The results are magnificent.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

42 thoughts on “REVIEW: “First Man”

      • Oh so good to hear. Yes that’s it and the whole anti-American thing. Hype of any kind good or bad, always makes me pause before watching a movie. I like to form my own opinions. For example, I finally watched Infinity War last night and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

      • I was a bit leery after hearing the backlash. It seemed like such a bad choice for the film. But I’ll just say it is FAR from anti-America, anti-flag, etc. The flag is shown through the film, even on the moon. References to America and the space program’s ingenuity is everywhere. I truly hope that controversy doesn’t push too many people away. Rest assured, is a total non-issue.

    • I can see if someone not being excited if they aren’t interested in NASA, space exploration, etc. But let me say this is truly about the man and the human element he kept so tightly confined within him. It spends a ton of time exploring his family life which was pretty painful at times. I can’t recommend it enough.

  1. The things you liked about this film are almost what turned me off including the way it was shot and Gosling’s performance, despite its accuracy. The film to me was depressing given that it seemed to be in a lot of ways about death and the loss of life or sacrifices in the race to get a man on the moon, which would have been fine but I’m not sure Chazelle does enough with that idea. There is a great sequence about “Whitey on the moon” that felt isolated. I suppose some of the scenes with the wife and kids were supposed to be emblematic of what I wanted, but the pay-off or ending to this movie didn’t hit me emotionally as I might have wanted. The trip to the moon while fascinating wasn’t as exhilarating as the mission in ‘Apollo 13’, a way better film than this one.

    • Very interesting and well expressed take on it. I honestly like this movie better than Apollo 13 but honestly they are much different movies. Apollo 13 is far more cinematic while this is much more personal. I do think there is a depressing feel to the film but I found it to be earned due to the things you hint at – death and grief. I thought Chazelle did a great job showing its effect of Armstrong who tried desperately to bottle it up despite the consequences on his home life. As for the “Whitey on the Moon” segment, I thought the film did just enough with the political tumult of the time. The “Whitey” segment combined with the numerous references over radio and in background chatter was enough for me especially considering how closed off these men were with their work. As for the ending, I teared up both times I saw it. It gave new meaning for me and as I wrote it was the film’s emotional release. Honestly, I was surprised at just how much I was pulled in by this thing.

  2. Ah! You liked it more than I did. Wasn’t the moon shots magnificent? I loved it when he looked back and there was the earth, a sliver, colored. I knew he was going to leave his daughter’s bracelet on the moon, but when he did it, it brought tears to my eyes as when the whole cycle of the lift-off. I liked the film very much.

    • Yes I absolutely loved it. Saw it a second time on IMAX and it solidified it for me. The moon segment was the perfect finale. That look to earth was incredible and mirrored the several times we see him looking at the moon while on earth (a couple times with his daughter). As I wrote, that scene was the closest the film comes to an emotional release. I like to think the shot of him letting go of the bracelet symbolized him finally letting go of his pent-up grief and pain.

      • Yes, you are absolutely correct. I just wish he had shown more emotional interraction or body language at least. I know how engineers are — they can be quirky and odd ducks as I’m sure Armstrong was, but I felt let down after his emotional weeping at the beginning of the movie.

      • Armstrong was a pretty fascinating guy but also a sad one. And think about it, the thing that caused him the most pain and sorrow was what drove him to be the dedicated and driven astronaut he was. Adds an unexpected layer to the man.

  3. I saw this film yesterday as I already posted my review as I was gripped by the scenes inside the capsules as the sound was scary at times where I was like “oh shit”. The scenes on the moon are incredible as I’m hoping for some serious consideration in the performances for Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.

    • Great hearing more enthusiasm for this movie. You aren’t kidding. Those capsule sequences were mind/blowing. Not in the pretty, polished CGI way. Instead it was the gripping realism and incredible use of perspective and sound that blew me away. I can’t say enough about the sound design. Did you have the chance to see it in IMAX?

      • Ah… cool. It’s been more than 20 years since I went to an IMAX screening for some documentary film when I was in middle school. I don’t remember what it was but I do remember how big the screen was. I did have a similar experience with The Hateful Eight for its 70mm roadshow screening which was incredible.

      • See, that’s something I would love to see. I’ve never had a chance to go to a 70mm screening. This was the first IMAX movie I’ve been to in a long time. Maybe since The Dark Knight Rises.

  4. I just saw this today and I really liked the story and the cast like you talked about, but I absolutely hated the way Chazelle shot this. It brought the movie down substantially for me.

    • That’s interesting. I loved the way it’s shot from the intense closeups to the mission scenes shot almost entirely from the astronauts perspective. It was an audacious choice. Glad it worked for me.

  5. Just read another review, and now yours. You seem to love it more. Sad to hear about Neil’s 2 year old daughter. I wasn’t aware.
    Speaking of how well it is made, I do wonder how Clint Eastwood’s vision would have panned out. It would have been nice to see two versions, one by Eastwood and the other by Chazelle. Both incredible directors, at two ends of the spectrum. Am really keen on checking it out, hopefully on the Big Screen!!
    By the Keith, am hosting a Blogathon for this month (any day from now to the 31st, though I’ve specified 20th-22nd). It would be great if you can join.
    Cheers
    Nuwan

    • I knew after my first viewing that it really connected with me. Went and saw it again two days later and it solidified my love for it. Definitely try and see it in the biggest screen possible. As for Eastwood’s version, I feel it would be a much different movie but one I would love to watch.

      Thanks for mentioning the Blogathon. What’s it centered around?

  6. Those crazy “We never went” conspiracists are really having a field day with this one! Now they have an extra bit of fictional propaganda to bolster their argument! I can’t believe that we live in 2018 and there are folks out there who genuinely believe that crap. Its scary, honestly. That part of the backlash was far more troubling to me than the fact Chazelle chose not to film the planting of the American flag.

    I’m seeing it tonight, doing it in IMAX no less! I am truly pumped.

    • The “We never went” nonsense is pure insanity. Conspiracists for sure, pushing this foolishness.

      IMAX? That is definitely the way to go. I really hope it pulls you in as it did me. Some haven’t been as smitten with the movie as I am. IMAX sealed my love for it.

      • Sigh. Even with not having the experience for myself yet, I am just as confused by the negative reactions as you. The movie is called First MAN, not The Moon Landing and All the People and Agencies Who Helped Us Get There. 😉

    • Awesome! IMAX is the way to see it for sure. And not just for the giant screen. The sound design is incredible. Anxious to hear your thoughts on it.

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