With his first two features having earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, young director Damien Chazelle has become cinema’s wunderkind. Now the Oscar-winner for La La Land returns to the screen with his most ambitious project yet, the story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to becoming the first man to walk on the moon with the aptly titled First Man. Chazelle’s biopic drama is equally thrilling and frustrating as First Man is always teetering on the brink of being a full blown masterpiece but some questionable stylistic choices by its talented director hinder its effectiveness at times. Even as some of Chazelle’s choices get in the way of the visual storytelling, it’s hard to deny his immense talents as a filmmaker and it’s evident in the most stunning sequences in the film.
Chazelle starts the film off with an intense sequence of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flying an experimental jet towards the stratosphere. Technical errors make the flight rather fraught but Armstrong keeps his cool and is able to safely land the plane. This is just the beginning of Armstrong’s journey towards the lunar surface. At home, things aren’t so great as Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) must deal with the illness of their young daughter Karen. The young girl passes away and it sets the tone for the film that will deal with the grim specter of death looming over Armstrong’s historic journey. Neil applies to join the astronaut program and is one of the civilians brought into the program, uprooting his family to move to Houston, Texas.
In Houston, the Armstrong family quickly befriends the other families that have moved to be a part of the space program. Neil forms strong bonds with fellow astronauts Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke). Once again, Armstrong must contend with the pain of death as Elliott See is killed in a plane crash and Edward Higgins White was a part of the doomed Apollo 1 mission. The tragedies and sacrifice of his colleagues push Armstrong to the forefront of NASA’s elite astronauts and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) assigns him as head of the Apollo 11 mission, serving alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas). Amidst the media hoopla and uncertainty about his safety, Neil Armstrong is about to embark on a mission that will rewrite the course of history.
Gosling plays Armstrong as a man of few words whose emotions are internalized. It’s a powerful performance but one that’s not showy in the sense that will garner awards consideration. Claire Foy does her best with the material presented her but she’s saddled with the role of the concerned wife, meaning that she has to put on a strong face while trying to conceal her emotions as well as having those stern moments where she must force her husband to break his stony façade. Everyone in the robust cast of First Man delivers strong work even if most of the characters aren’t given much beyond the surface aside from Gosling’s stoic Neil Armstrong.
There’s one glaring aspect of First Man that is just so frustrating and that’s the choice of director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren to shoot the film with handheld cameras. The shot composition itself is practically perfect and the film is masterfully edited, but the shaking of the camera in every scene becomes a bit frustrating to watch. From my viewpoint, the shaky cam of First Man is what holds it back from being a full blown masterpiece.
But once First Man finds Neil Armstrong on the moon, it becomes some of the most stunning filmmaking of the year. If you can, see First Man in full IMAX just for the moon landing sequence alone. All of that quiet, internalized pain that Gosling brings to Armstrong culminates in a jaw-dropping sequence that also provides an emotional catharsis as the journey finds its ultimate destination. All of the aspects of First Man that frustrated me floated away on the surface of the moon and its low gravity, muttering to myself “Wow” at the astonishing filmmaking on display.
First Man was deemed controversial after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival when a comment by Ryan Gosling was taken out of context and spread like wildfire among conservative media by people who hadn’t seen the movie claiming it failed to show the American flag on the moon. That’s absolute insanity. The film doesn’t feature a scene where the flag is planted but it’s very visible on the surface of the moon. More importantly, this is a film that isn’t rah-rah jingoism but a quieter, more contemplative work about the sacrifice of the first astronauts to brings America to the moon. It’s a solemn ode to the patriots who risked it all for the advancement of humanity and doing so wearing the colors of the American flag on their arms. Anyone with half a brain can see that First Man was dragged into the ongoing culture wars by crass political opportunists who purposefully misrepresented a movie they hadn’t seen.
We may never see an event that unified the nation and the world like the moon landing. First Man brings this incredible journey to the screen in a personal story of sacrifice and pain that laid the path to history. It’s a movie that can be frustrating because it’s so close to being a masterpiece, but it’s still a powerful, engaging film that focuses on the determination that finds humanity at its best. When we’re in times with so much despair, it’s a necessary story of collaboration and determination to rewrite the concept of what’s possible.