Oscar winner Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his hit musical ‘La La Land’ is a film that is surprisingly large and very personal and intimate at the same time. ‘First Man’ is a biopic, telling the story of Neil Armstrong in the events leading up to his historical journey to becoming the first man to set foot in the moon in 1969. It details a personal moment Armstrong has prior to (or which may have led him to take, though it is never clearly stated) applying as a pilot and engineer for NASA’s space program, the struggles of the program getting off the ground (literally), and the heavy toll it took on his wife, Janet, and their kids.
Unlike the frenetic energy and anxious raw emotions of his previous work ‘Whiplash’ or the fantastical whimsy of ‘La La Land,’ this film is grand in scope and vision and yet still so intimate as it zeroes in on a particular life event in Armstrong’s life that seems to fuel his motivations throughout the film.
There are two worlds operating in this film as Chazelle juxtaposes the science and the government’s mad rush to beat the Russians in the space race and the slow deterioration of his family life. It is both quiet and extremely loud. Neil Armstrong is depicted as a man of very few words and one who is not so open about articulating his emotions. The film feels big and epic in every way but it doesn’t operate like one.
The music is barely evident until only the biggest of moments as Armstrong and his team are out in space and it’s only the music that highlights the quietness of space. There is 35mm film quality to the cinematography that gives you the impression of a home video or something of the time frame. Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are presented almost without makeup and the absence of Hollywood gloss and glamour is removed; and with Chazelle’s insistence on very extreme close ups, it strips away any pretense.
We feel every moment so vividly even when Armstrong has barely anything to say. It would be so easy to recall Gosling’s work in ‘Drive,’ except Gosling’s Armstrong is filled with emotion that we can read off of from his stillness. In ‘Drive,’ he is almost impenetrable. Here in ‘First Man,’ he’s barely holding himself together and doing everything he can from bursting out. It’s here where Claire Foy provides the contrast as the astronaut’s wife, who is desperately trying to lure out his humanity.
By constantly juxtaposing an empty suburbia with the mechanical, rumblings of the space program, ‘First Man’ manages to paint the unbelievable costs of this journey: from as personal as one man’s home life to the immense, like the billions of taxpayers dollars, which was questioned by both the people at the White House and the citizens.
It moves seamlessly from the individual to the country and then to the world, without missing a beat, and all the while it is very quiet until it is very loud.
But while it is a character study and also a study of history, it still manages to be thrilling and suspenseful. We’ve seen incredible coverage of dramas in space and the first that comes to mind is Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity,’ but Chazelle manages to give us a fresh and original way of presenting the Apollo 11 mission.
There’s no question that this film is an awards season offering, but ‘First Man’ goes the distance and surprises us by giving us more than what we bargained for, and told in new and unexpected ways. Chazelle may have just gotten his second Oscar nomination for director and Gosling and Foy may come out of this with nominations themselves.
First Man opens in cinemas nationwide on Wednesday, October 17, 2018.