Damien Chazelle’s 3rd outing proves he is one of Hollywoods great young directors. First Man is a stupendous technical achievement, but at times can feel sluggish and monotoned.
A look at the life of the astronaut Neil Armstrong and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Have you ever really thought about it? The Moon landing? It’s something that happened almost 50 years ago, actually, next July will be the 50th anniversary of one of the most important and significant events in the history of mankind. While I sat in the theatre and looked up at that massive IMAX screen, it hit me. I actually didn’t know anything about Neil Armstrong and his fascinating life story, even less about the insane journey that NASA went on to finally put a man on the Moon. Maybe that’s because the Moon landing although a massive achievement is celebrated by Americans. Over a billion people watched their TVs on July 20th, 1969. I walked away from this movie, not thinking about the film itself, but rather the sympathy and pain I felt for the heroic man that pretty much sacrificed everything so he could accomplish something very few men have ever done.
I had high expectations for First Man. Coming off Whiplash and La La Land, Damien Chazelle is held in pretty high regards when it comes to directors with me. I don’t like comparing movies, but I felt this was his weakest film to date, but not by much. As the film opens up, the first 5 minutes is almost utter silence. The sounds of intense wind, and heavy breathing, but there is zero dialogue. That’s how I described this film, it’s very quiet. There are several moments of long pauses, and immense quiet, which can be successful in certain scenes but can make the overall film feel long and drawn out. If you had to choose one word to describe Ryan Gosling, for me, the word that always comes to mind is stoic. He’s a quiet actor to begin with. Actually, he does some of his best work when he isn’t saying anything at all. Drive, Blade Runner 2049, all these great performances are done not with words, but rather his face and his body. Well, First Man is no different. Neil Armstrong was a private person, especially after the death of his infant daughter. He becomes recluse and doesn’t know even how to treat his other two children. Death can change a person, and it was pretty clear that the death of his daughter took an immense toll on him, even if he didn’t let it show through. Gosling is as usual, fantastic, and I’m certain he will nab an Oscar nomination.
But he has two roles here. Neil Armstrong the family man, and Neil Armstrong the astronaut. For me, this is where the movie falters. The space exploration and the Moon landing is movie making at its finest, and what the movie will be remembered for. But it all feels so detached from everything else that is going on. That is the films biggest downfall. But for me, that is just a tiny nitpick, because the movie does flow really well, and it’s such an incredible story, that small details like that shouldn’t matter. Ryan Gosling isn’t the only one giving a terrific performance. Claire Foy plays his wife Janet Armstrong who has to deal with a lot herself on this journey. She doesn’t work and has to take care of the kids, but at times has to listen to the mission control room through a tiny little radio, while her husband is literally fighting for his life. Talk about tension and talk about nerves. She’s really great here, and you can feel the discomfort and the disconnect that her and Neil share after the death of their daughter Karen. Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Ciaran Hinds, this really is a jammed packed cast, with everyone contributing in their own way. It’s an “oh that guy” kind of cast, but it’s super effective.
The filmmaking aspect is really a special achievement. From the get-go, it felt different. The screen almost looked fuzzy, like we were watching some old footage. I found like I was actually traveling back in time. But when the space exploration takes place, you really are blown away. I’m not sure how they pulled it off, but Chazelle deserves a ton of credit. He’s now 3-for-3 with this feature films and after a disappointing weekend at the box-office, it will be interesting to see how this fairs come awards season. It’s a slow burn, and I think audiences going in thought this might be a little more like Gravity, and a bit more intense. The claustrophobic space stuff does get intense and it makes you tighten your grip on the armrest, but when you know history and you know how this story ends, that tension and intensity can feel a little fake.
Overall, I rather enjoyed First Man despite its flaws. Was it everything I wanted it to be? No. But that doesn’t take away from the overall achievement of the film-making here. It’s not going to transcend the film industry or even the space genre, but rather it should be considered a technological achievement. Damien Chazelle is going to be in our lives for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what he pumps out next. I just wanted a little bit more, but learning about Neil’s life and his journey was worth it for me. The most emotional beat in the whole movie is something that I feel uneasy about. I have tried to research it, and it’s hard to talk about without spoiling the ending. I’m sure they talked to Neil’s family, but this moment was something that they were building throughout the whole film. If this was just added for theatrical effect, I’m not going to lie, I’m going to be a tad upset. But if this moment really did take place on the Moon, boy, it makes it all more special and emotional. This movie won’t be for everyone, but for cinephiles like myself, I certainly loved the ride.
Check ya later
Nate’s Movie Tour Reviews – First Man = 86/100