First Man – Review

It’s a career long struggle to be at the top of your field for most people in the film industry.  It’s even rarer to see someone reach that level before they even reach middle age.  That’s been the case with film director Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood over the last couple of years, with only three feature films to his credit.  Starting off from the critical darling Whiplash (2014), Chazelle would undertake a very ambitious project for his second feature, which was also a long time dream project of his.  The musical feature La La Land (2016) caught fire immediately upon release and instantly made the thirty-something phenom a force to be reckoned with.  Of course, the movie has now garnered the notorious reputation of having lost out the Best Picture race, even despite it’s record tying 14 nominations, and having been mistakenly named the winner at the ceremony.  But, Damien still managed to walk away from the Oscars as the youngest Best Director winner in history at the astonishingly young age of 32.  Now, certainly, coming from an already affluent family and earning a degree from Harvard helped to give him a leg up that few others have the privilege of having in the industry, but it’s still undeniable that he is an enormously skilled filmmaker who, more than anything else, has a bold sense of how to use the medium to tell some larger than life stories.  Many rising stars among filmmakers tend to fluctuate between taking on big risks or steadily working with intimate, personal stories.  Damien Chazelle, it would seem, is eager to build upon what he has already built and push even further with the medium of film.  After taking on a tumultuous character study with Whiplash and a whimsical love story with La La Land, what appears to be the next adventure for the young director to pursue is the skies itself with the space based biopic, First Man.

First Man is another in what seems to be a quasi-Renaissance of films about the cosmos.  Starting off with Alfonso Cuaron’s ground-breaking thriller, Gravity (2013), we have seen a new film nearly every year that continues to use the final frontier as it’s point of interest.  Christopher Nolan delivered his epic exploration of deep space exploration with 2014’s Interstellar.  Ridley Scott followed that with The Martian (2015), a harrowing stranded on a desert island adventure where that lonely island just happens to be the fourth rock from the sun.  These were critical hits, but more recent space themed movies, like 2016’s Passengers, 2017’s Life, and this year’s Cloverfield Paradox have all proven underwhelming by comparison.  But what set’s First Man apart from all the more recent space themed movies is that it’s not looking into the future, but rather the past.  All the other movies are speculations of what space travel will be like in the years ahead, but First Man tells the story of how we got there in the first place.  It tells the story of the monumental Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and more importantly, sheds light on the personal story of the man in charge of the mission iteself; Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.  There have been many celebrated movies that have celebrated the achievements of the space race, from Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).  There was also the delightful earthbound, behind the scenes movie of Hidden Figures (2016), which told the story of the women who figured out the math that made space travel possible.  But strangely, we have never seen a feature film about the historic mission to the moon itself, nor about Armstrong; which is partly due to the legendary figure’s insistence on privacy.  With First Man, director Damien Chazelle hopes to change that and shed light on what led to the giant leap for mankind.

The movie starts off showing Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in his early career as a test pilot for rocket jets that were designed to launch into near orbit around earth.  After the tragic death of his young daughter from cancer, Neil is grounded due to questions about his mental stability.  He soon learns that the NASA program is seeking candidates for it’s Gemini program, which is intent on testing the possibilities of taking men on a mission to the moon.  Armstrong moves his family closer to the Houston command center and performs well at his interview.  He joins the Gemini team, where he quickly builds a friendship with his fellow trainees, Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward White (Jason Clarke).  Armstrong builds valuable experience along the way and is soon selected by the program’s director, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) to pilot the Gemini 8 rocket.  Not long after getting the honor, he learns of Elliott See’s tragic accident on a test flight.  Suffering another loss in his life, Armstrong finds solace in his work, which he takes to an almost manic level of seriousness.  Neil’s self imposed seclusion puts a strain on his relationship with his two sons, Rick and Mark, as well as his patient but over-burdened wife, Janet (Claire Foy).  Neil manages to successfully conclude the docking test aboard the Gemini 8 capsule, but a malfunction nearly brings him to the brink of death and casts doubt on the future of the moon landing itself.  This coupled with the tragic Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts, including Ed White, and the future of NASA becomes pretty dire.  Out of all this, Neil Armstrong is selected alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) to command the pivotal Apollo 11 mission that’s been picked for the actual landing.  With so much at stake, both personally and historically, Armstrong must pull together in order to do the impossible.

The first challenge for a filmmaker tackling a historic event is to make a story that everyone knows the outcome to feel brand new.  We all know how the Apollo 11 mission turned out; everything went according to plan without incident and all three astronauts returned home safely and lived prosperous lives for many years after.  First Man needed to find another way to build tension for it’s retelling of the mission in order to work as a film, and it does so by chronicling the enormous struggle it took to get to the moon.  The movie isn’t so much a film about the Apollo 11 mission itself as it is a personal journey through the years long process it took for NASA to finally work out all the problems and get everything right.  In this regard, the movie succeeds spectacularly.  The most fascinating aspect of the movie is in witnessing the human cost that it took on the people in the Gemini and Apollo missions.  Lives were lost in tragic ways, which left a deep scar emotionally on those left behind.  Damien Chazelle does a great job of showing the emotional toll that keeps building on these people over time, as they watch friends and loved ones die suddenly.  And the shocking aspect of the movie is that very little time was allowed for these men and their wives to grieve, because the mission to the moon was so paramount and they all had to bury their sorrow quickly and move on.  What the movie brilliantly lays out is the fact that reaching the moon was a hard fought victory, and by the time the lander does reach the surface, you feel the full weight of what has just been accomplished.  I love how poetic the actual scene on the moon is, because it’s almost tranquil compared to the whirlwind of emotions that preceded it.  The movie finds it’s greatest success in building the tension through the human experience of what these guys went through to get to this moment, and once we finally do reach the moon, the film graciously lets us breath and enjoy the beauty.

Unfortunately, in order to do justice to the tumultuous trial and error that it took to reach the moon, the movie sacrifices something important that might have helped to elevate it just a little more.  The movie is strangely emotionally vacant when it comes to the human story, as we don’t really get a good sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.  The movie attempts it’s best shot at understanding the person that was Neil Armstrong, but I feel that by the end he remains an enigma to the viewer.  That’s not to say that Ryan Gosling gives a bad performance; quite the contrary, he gives one of his best performances yet in this movie.  I think the problem lies in the fact that Damien Chazelle is working from a script that is not his own (a first) and from a writer whose style is very different from what Chazelle likes to work with.  The script was written by Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for the movie Spotlight (2015).  What Singer is great at as a writer is detailing historical events through meticulous detail and finding a compelling story within, which he managed to do so well in a movie like Spotlight and more recently Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017).  But, at the same time, his scripts are not character studies.  The people within his scripts fill their roles, are often very interesting, but are ultimately not what drives the story, that instead being the event itself.  Chazelle on the other hand is much more comfortable exploring the minds of his characters, often to uncomfortable points, like the tumultuous relationships he explored in Whiplash and La La Land.  First Man finds the director out of his comfort zone and I don’t quite believe he found the emotional center of this movie the way he would’ve liked to because of the scripts limitations.  The details about the mission are still brilliantly staged, but when it cuts back to Armstrong’s domestic life, the movie feels like it looses it’s way.  I wanted to understand more about what Armstrong was like as a person, and I feel that the movie didn’t quite deliver on that.  It does show flashes where Armstrong seems to still be haunted by the memory of his daughter, which might have been true, but it just comes across as a fabrication on the filmmakers part to try to find some explanation that they honestly didn’t have an answer for.

Despite the shortcomings of the film’s script and emotional weight, I still have to commend the craft that was put into it.  The movie is visually stunning, and shows that Damien Chazelle is still exploring new ways to play around with the medium.  I like the fact that he is continuing to experiment with different kinds of film stock for his movies.  After shooting La La Land in the rarely used Cinemascope 55 format, which helped to give that movie an old-fashioned Hollywood musical texture to it’s lavish visuals, he takes a whole different approach to First Man which not only affects the aesthetic of the movie, but also offers up some underlining thematics as well.  The majority of the movie is actually shot in 16 mm, a very grainy format often used by small budget movies and documentaries.  The effect really helps to sell the intimacy of the production, putting the viewer right in the center of the action, as if they were watching a documentary.  This really helps to amp up the tension in some of the more intense scenes when the astronauts are launching into space.  Damien Chazelle really captures the cramp, claustrophobic feeling of being inside one of those capsules, something which the grainy detail of the 16 mm image really enhances.  It also feels appropriate to the era, as most of the footage we have of the behind the scenes workings of NASA during the 60’s also comes in the form of 16 mm stock footage.  But, once the moment arrives when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the moon, Damien Chazelle does something very bold.  The two astronauts open the hatch, and suddenly the movie shifts to stunning 70 mm IMAX.  You don’t really get the full effect unless you see the movie projected in IMAX (like I did), but it’s still an incredible effect.  Suddenly the film shifts to ultra high definition and bold colors that only IMAX can fully exploit, and it spectacularly presents the majesty of the moment.  Thematically it fits with the rest of the film itself, with grainy 16 mm signifying uncertainty before the mission and IMAX revealing the clarity of what all this was leading up to.  It shows that cinematicly, Damien Chazelle is still using his position as direction to really make some bold choices, and this movie benefits greatly from that in a visual standpoint.

Damein Chazelle has actually stated that he’s looked at the movies of Christopher Nolan as an inspiration point when it came to finding the epic scope of the film’s biggest moments, and it’s very apparent from the way he stages the crucial parts in outer space.  There are a few parallels with this and the movie Interstellar, especially the shots showing the exteriors of the spacecrafts, but First Man breaks from it’s predecessor by never venturing too far away from those crafts either.  Christopher Nolan balanced a lot of his movie out with close up shots of his spacecrafts as well as wide shots that accentuated just how insignificant they were in the great expanse of the cosmos.  First Man never goes that far, and keeps much of the visuals close to the human element as possible.  There are one or two wide shots of the moon in all it’s glory, but most of what we see is from the point of view of the astronauts.  This helps to give the movie a very valuable “you are there” experience, and we the viewer feel like we’ve been dropped into the cockpit with Neil and Buzz.  When you see the surface of the moon coming closer and closer through the port windows of the lander, you have the same amount of anticipation as the astronauts do, and that landing sequence is easily the film’s most effective moment.  I have to give a lot of praise to both the film’s visual effects unit and it’s sound design team.  The movie makes brilliant use of large scale models in it’s recreation of the rockets that launched the astronauts into space, as well as the moon itself.  It’s all shown very subtly, further enhancing the realism that the movie is intending to achieve.  And if there is an absolutely certain Oscar win in this movie’s future, it’s the sound design.  You hear every moan, clank, and bang of these spacecrafts as they go through the harrowing experience of launching past the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the vastness of Space.  Those sounds especially reinforce the claustrophobia of every scene as well, and drives up the tension even further.  I love the fact that all the noise of the movie completely disappears once the hatch is opened on the moon and all that we hear thereafter is the actual recordings of Armstong on the moon followed by a graceful musical underscore by Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz.  For a movie that so aggressively amps up the cacophony of noises that the astronauts had to endure to reach their goal, the movie ends on a wonderfully quiet and peaceful climax.

As a chronicle of the greatest achievement of mankind in the 20th century, First Man largely succeeds.  I found myself fascinated by the steps that it took to get to that moment, and what that meant to the world as a result.  I certainly never considered the human cost that was involved before and the movie really shows how this moment in history was hard won.  I just wish that the film had balanced that with a closer look at the people themselves.  Everyone’s personalities are fixed and there are no great arcs for the people in this story; not even Neil Armstrong.  I feel that this is the one disappointing thing in what is otherwise a brilliantly staged production.  I believe that this is more a flaw of the script itself rather than anything else, because the very talented cast does their best to work as much personality as they can into these historical figures.  Corey Stoll does the best out of the bunch as his version of Buzz Aldrin comes off as obnoxious in the most humorous kind of way.  I also thought Claire Foy used her brief moments of passion as the long frustrated wife of Neil Armstong to great effect, finding the strength in what is otherwise an underwritten role.  Gosling, probably had the hardest job to undertake as Neil Armstrong was one of the least known figures of the early days of NASA.  Armstrong never sought publicity or actively argued that he should be the first.  He was the first man to walk on the moon simply because someone had to be.  The movie, as well as Gosling as an actor, seems to have had it’s arms tied as a result, because there is very little to actually mine from this man’s life.  Armstrong rarely did interviews, never wrote a memoir, and all we know about him is from the recollections of his friends and family.  As a result, the movie works best as a chronicle of his achievements, but not as an examination of his character.  For a director like Chazelle, whose work up to now has been primarily focused on intimate portraits of personal struggles, this unfortunately feels like a step backwards for the director.  But only in a storytelling sense, as he continues to impress as a visual artist, becoming even more confident working with a larger scale.  It is still great to see an ambitious film finally devoted to this moment in history, emphasizing it’s importance and how much it propelled us forward as a civilization.  And Chazelle and company do honor it with a great deal of profound respect.  For this still young director, it will be interesting how he takes the next leap forward himself in future projects.

Rating: 8/10

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