First Man (2018)

Review #1,630

Director:  Damien Chazelle
Cast:  Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Plot:  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.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / History
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice) & People's Choice Award (Toronto)
Runtime:  141 mins
Rating:  PG13 (passed clean) for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Distributor:  United International Pictures

“Mom, what's wrong?”
“Nothing, honey.  Your dad's going to the Moon.”

Damien Chazelle is only 33 years of age, and like a meteor, one can’t quite know how far he can go.  There is a case to be had that he could be the Steven Spielberg of his generation, having made Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016), and now his first biopic and adaptation, First Man.  Spielberg directed The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by the time he was 31.  A remarkably consistent director so far, Chazelle’s stock continues to rise even further with this solid and confidently-mounted biopic on Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the Moon.  

Written by Josh Singer (Spotlight, 2015; The Post, 2017), who is no stranger to dramatising true stories in compelling fashion, First Man focuses on a wide spectrum of issues and events that affected Armstrong’s life in the decade leading up to the most celebrated moment in 20th century space history.  Here, the filmmakers foreground his family first and foremost, then his desire and ambition in contributing to America’s space exploration, and lastly the political-historical context of this fascinating period that was the ‘60s.  

Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong, delivers a nuanced performance as a man of few words alongside his screen wife as played by Claire Foy.  Often deep in thought and preferring to be left alone, Armstrong must overcome psychological battles (of family, work pressure, personal ambition and the demise of beloved colleagues) to be ready for the trip to the unknown.  First Man is satisfying to experience because Chazelle gives enough of human drama and emotions that allow us to invest in Armstrong’s life such that, and like its cinematic cousin, Apollo 13 (1995), there is still a palpable sense of tension despite the knowledge that the lunar mission was ultimately successful. 

Case in point: the film begins with Armstrong in the midst of a space test, with Chazelle setting not just its intensity, but also the ‘visual style’ where there is rarely a third-person perspective wide shot.  Instead, throughout the film, we as audiences are ‘strapped in’ together with Armstrong whenever he journeys from Earth to space (be it the actual flight or test runs).  In one particularly intense segment, Armstrong and co. attempt to practise docking in space, but it goes awry causing the craft to spin uncontrollably in zero gravity.  First Man is a technical marvel that doesn’t forget the heart of its story—I’ll be surprised if it fails to be a strong contender at the Oscars.  

Verdict:  Chazelle's stock as a filmmaker continues to rise in this solid and confidently-mounted Neil Armstrong biopic.





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