We all know how the formula works for a movie looking to enter the Oscar Race. If it works, why mess with it? Damien Chazelle followed the same formula in First Man that earned him multiple nominations with La La Land. With this movie, the young director is looking for a different result come Oscars night. A visual epic about the human drive to succeed and push beyond our limits.
And for the most part, he was successful.
First Man is about the early days of NASA, the life of Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon.
While the synopsis might cause you to think about other NASA movies such as Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, First Man sets itself up as its own movie. It is part nerve-racking and breathtaking space epic on a grand scale and part intimate character study of an American hero. While both those elements are amazing to watch, it is hard to balance them in a film. While I commend a young director like Chazelle in doing the space mission element a great service, the character sections was not as successful.
I don’t know much about Armstrong personally but what I do know is that the man shunned any type of publicity or personal credit. He was definitely enigmatic and mysterious and while First Man is enthralling and amazing as a film, I waited to see if the mystery of Neil Armstrong would be unraveled. It presents theories and interesting psychological notions (particularly the aftermath of losing a child) into what made Armstrong tick, but I don’t believe a full picture was revealed. Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer’s way of demystifying Neil Armstrong doesn’t feel fully convincing; it feels more like a sketch than a full portrait.
Chazelle’s La La Land leading man, Ryan Gosling, plays Armstrong as a buttoned-down, bottled-up early ’60s brain trust of a man. He’s a master of cool control who feels most at him in the cockpit of a plane or a rocket, but quiet and withholding at home with his wife (an excellent performance by Claire Foy) and children. This became more apparent after the loss of his daughter. The Gemini program, followed by the Apollo missions seemed to be an escape for him from the real world. Looking at the film, you can see that Armstrong seemed more at home in space than he ever was on Earth. You can see Armstrong’s obsession with pushing the limits of what Mankind can do, evoking the words of President John F. Kennedy during that time in American history. Gosling lets you see past his wonderful performance into the man’s humanity and soul – this performance should put him in the running for a Best Actor nomination. Here’s to hoping the director and actor collaborate for years to come.
Where this movie came alive, though, is when we leave the Earth and soar into the heavens with all its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and greatness. This movie captures space flight like no other before it. The degree of authenticity is incredible. I felt anxiety with the rocket fighting its way into space. The violent, anxiety-inducing opening sequence was just a tip of where this movie would go with the effects and authenticity of space travel and you are just waiting for the Moon walk and the fateful first steps on the lunar surface. Trust me, that scene is worth the wait. While the passage of time in the beginning of the film feels clunky and the film’s closing moments a little downbeat and unresolved, this movie is a triumph. Go experience it in IMAX. Chazelle and Gosling have achieved an amazing film about the first man, even if that first man is the last man we truly know by the end credits.
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