Written by: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott
Despite all of the team effort and collaboration it takes to send someone up to space, in the end, the controls lie in the hands of an individual to complete the job. Something with plenty of pressure, which First Man sets out to highlight. While a large group achievement, this film makes no effort to tell an inspirational story about American space exceptionalism, but rather a moving portrait of a man working through grief.
Given the opportunity to work for NASA and their potential launch to the moon, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) moves his family out to Houston. Through different trials, the dangers of trying this feat becomes apparent as the battle to beat the Soviets at this game pushes the engineers and pilots to their breaking points.
Expectations heading into a feature can truly make or break someone’s experience. Hollywood has gotten audiences conditioned to the point of expecting the same type of story with a particular formula. With First Man being a story centered on Neil Armstrong, many expected a biopic of the first person to walk on the moon but this film has no interest in doing so. Instead, it took the far more captivating approach of focusing on this man during a specific stretch in his life, which coincides with his big moment but it all hinges on the death of his young daughter.
Shown at the very beginning, it shows Neil helping his sick daughter through the turmoils of her treatment. He gets the best help money can buy but in the end, he can’t save her. This emotional anguish sits with this character for the entire feature but it does not come out as overtly as other stories would because it would be inauthentic to the man it seeks to portray. As noted by his colleagues, Armstrong was not always the most expressive individual and Ryan Gosling’s performance gets right at this sentiment in the feature. Through most of the film, a layer of sadness sits right under the diplomatic face of this man as the thought of his daughter permeates all of his thoughts. Yet another Gosling performance where he lets all of the emotional outbursts occur at a minimum and portrays this stoic figure in a way not to draw attention but be authentic to the story at hand. This may give the appearance of coldness or emotional distance for some, but the narrative sets up the anguish and provides a truly heartbreaking payoff.
Yes, even with this being about Armstrong as a man battling through grief, it also does highlight his journey to walk on the moon. He goes from a pilot just breaking the atmosphere to someone entrusted by the United States government to reach the moon. Many trials and tribulations on the way, if you have any bit of history regarding American space travel, you know where the end result is in 1969 but the journey getting there becomes the true shining light of this feature. First Man, unlike any other film of its ilk, seeks to truly put the audience right in the experience of flying in these vessels. Right from the onset with Armstrong’s flight right outside the atmosphere, the camera rarely leaves the inside of the vessel as we sit with Armstrong throughout his entire experience. This particular flight faces the complication of bouncing off the atmosphere and the fear of the vessel drifting away. It creates an opening sequence drenched in tension because we’re right along for the ride with this man.
It demonstrates incredibly dazzling and visceral filmmaking by Damien Chazelle to display the harrowing stakes involved with trying to reach the moon. The process comes down to more than just building a rocket ship to get the astronauts up there. It becomes a series of trial and error sequences where the consequence of loss of life being a very real if even the smallest miscalculation gets made. Chazelle’s fearlessness allows the camera to stay with these pilots within the vessels and the disorienting nature becomes the entire point. There may be moments where you need to look away, but it only highlights the incredible difficulty in trying to accomplish the feats of these individuals.
Going through this film, it becomes impossible to ignore the stupendous Justin Hurwitz score highlighting the understated moments and going absolutely bananas when it needs to. Hurwitz finds a way to utilize the same tune throughout the feature and manipulates it in order to match the scene in question. Each time it gets modified further shows the beauty of the musical work being done here. A collaborator with Chazelle in all of his films, they always find the right balance when working with each other to put together music to perfectly match the emotional stakes of the stories being told. Hurwitz’s work in First Man may be his finest, which is truly saying something considering his body of work with Chazelle alone.
Stepping out of films centered on music, this film marks a new step for Damien Chazelle in a career filled with plenty of adulation very early. With this feature, he truly flexes his muscles to display how he can tell a story with so much emotional fortitude and unafraid of how audiences would react to it. You can easily see where this story could have been eerily conventional in order to get a crowd-pleasing reaction, but he steps up to make something much deeper and thrilling at the same time. While it does not reach the heights of La La Land and Whiplash, it still displays exceptional work and I hope he continues to stretch his wings.
Incredibly refreshing with its outline and emotionally resounding with its themes, First Man thrills with its sequences and then punches you right in the gut. It allows the audience to peel back a layer from a man not keen on letting others in emotionally. The battling of grief underlies every action made by this man, which all culminates for the moment up on the moon and how it pays off everything built up from the onset of the film. From the lives lost trying to get someone up there and the personal battles Armstrong has to battle, it all comes down to one man, the first man some might say.