First Man tells the incredible true story of Neil Armstrong who took a giant leap for mankind by leading the Apollo 11 mission and becoming the first man to step onto the moon.
I’ve been following the filmography of Damien Chazelle ever since he made a name for himself with the unforgettable indie Whiplash, and I again was there in the theater for when he rocked the world with the marvelous, award-winning, record-breaking La La Land. So of course I could not miss his newest big-screen hit, this time an adapted screenplay from a book on the true story of the mission that changed the world. Chazelle takes a well-known story and though we all know how it ends, he makes it feel exhilarating and gripping. Every shot is breathtaking and the cinematography is an achievement for modern cinema. The camera angles are perfectly selected, making these scenes riveting, and the shots of space, Earth, and the moon are incredible. It’s hard to tell how much was practical and how much wasn’t because it looks so realistic. The sound and editing also make for intensity and strong effectiveness in the action. The moon landing scene will glue your eyes onto the screen, and even if you know how it will end, it’s so beautifully done, with the music, tension, and even emotion by the end make it the most unforgettable scene of the entire year. Ryan Gosling brings out another moving performance as Neil Armstrong, with subtle moments from beginning to end that will bring emotion to you like almost no other actor this year, and Claire Foy brings lots of strength to Janet, Neil’s wife, in sequences that will guarantee her an Oscar nomination, as well as very impressive chemistry with Gosling.
Chazelle directs this mission delivering strong themes like how the hard work of many can achieve the most impossible dreams, and we see how much training was required but also the hardships that occurred during the preparation for the launch. There’s also some very powerfully written parts, showing a tragedy that happened in Armstrong’s life and how his family felt about him embarking on such a journey. The cinematography always stands out with the rare 70mm format making it look even more like a period piece, and like I said, every scene set in space will blow you away and make you need to catch your breath at the end. Every shot is so brilliantly composed and the handheld cam even works for the effect of intensity — at times it feels like Chazelle wants you to be on that spaceship with the characters. The music by Justin Hurwitz is also fantastic and deserves him another Oscar win, and I doubt any score this year will top the amazing music in this film and the effect it has on many great scenes in the film. However, there is one major flaw I have in the writing of the film — I felt like we didn’t feel much of Armstrong’s personality, and didn’t really learn much about who he was other than what we did. The movie makes some attempt at a personal arc for him which works very well, but if we had seen more about his relationship with his wife and kids and how the events of his life shaped who he was as a person, perhaps his character would be more compelling as well as the performance. It felt like the movie focused greatly on the Apollo 11 mission and the space journey Armstrong embarked on, but if only he had embarked on a bit more of an emotional journey as well. I personally felt more attached to Gosling’s other characters like Sebtastian in La La Land, the Driver in Drive, and K in Blade Runner 2049 because those films dug deeper into those character’s emotions and personalities while this film only scratched the surface of that. Thankfully the technical aspects and overall story redeems the film, with a marvelous second half that deserves a second directing Oscar for Damien Chazelle.
First Man is a technical masterpiece with wonderfully directed and shot sequences that will floor audiences, and even though I don’t think this will become one of my favorite movies like Whiplash and La La Land have, the performances and especially the out-of-this-world journey, one you know so well but is brought to screen with top notch execution, makes it a film that must be watched on the big screen.