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.
“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.
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.
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