First Man

FirstDirector: Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter: Josh Singer

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll

How do you follow up a movie that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (for five seconds), and then lost it. What kind of film do you make after having your hopes dashed at the last possible second, just short of experiencing the glory of a mission accomplished? You make a movie about the first god damned guy who went to the god damned moon and stood on the Moonlight itself, that’s what you do! Did Damien Chazelle make a movie about Ryan Gosling standing on a vacant non-musical moon to lament La La Land losing Best Picture to Moonlight? Of course not. There was no love lost between them, and Moonlight was the better film. But if he did, that’s poetry right there, a pure, uncut, mass media movie battle. Your move Barry Jenkins. I’m looking forward to your movie about a jazz drummer who doesn’t need an abusive music teacher to self-realize.

Anyway, First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land, and it is a departure for him compared to his previous work, and mostly a good one. First Man is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the astronaut who became the first man to walk on the moon. However, a word of warning follows. If you are looking for another story of American ingenuity that results in a heroic and feel-good sense of accomplishment, look elsewhere. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer chose to adapt James Hansen’s authorized biography of the life of Neil Armstrong, which – spoiler alert – is not all moonwalking and giant leaps. Armstrong’s life encompassed some of the highest highs as well as some of the lowest lows imaginable, and Chazelle and Gosling bring these emotions to life with vigor.

This tense balance of highs and lows is apparent right from the start when the film opens on Armstrong as a young aeronautics engineer for the NACA, piloting a North American X-15 right into the edge of outer space, and then promptly back down to earth. It’s an intense and disoriented sequence of film.

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Soon Armstrong’s ambitions bring him to the NASA Astronaut program forcing him to uproot his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and family from California to Texas to join Project Gemini as part of the team of astronauts pivotal in putting the United States in the lead during the Space Race against the Soviets.

First Man, however, develops as a human drama rather than simply a biopic. Yes, the journey to the moon is central to the movie, but it is not essential to its impact. Objectively, this film could be about any person stifled by tragedy, loss, and cultural boundaries, who loses himself in the process. The journey to the moon is but an instrument to reveal his catharsis. Speaking of “instruments,” while First Man clearly lacks the musician aspect that has been front-and-center in Chazelle’s previous films La La Land and Whiplash, it is not without music in its core. The editing, orchestration, arrangement and choreography of surroundings is quite rhythmic. This element adds to the immersive quality of the film that continues to be a signature of this young director (although I was hoping that signature would also include another J.K. Simmons cameo).

First Man is a moody film full of emotion and grit. Ryan Gosling gives another brooding yet powerful performance worthy of the man he plays. Additionally, Claire Foy, an actress I admit I’m rather unfamiliar with, is the source of most of the film’s real impact. Her scenes transcend the “poor astronaut’s wife” tropes aspiring to something far more revealing. Her ability to emote anxiety, stress, and struggle under the guise of composure is remarkable. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with recognizable faces playing many of the familiar figures you’ve seen before including Ed White (Jason Clarke), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), but this film is very much a character piece examining Neil and Janet.

Once one understands that this film will not hit the notes you most likely were expecting, First Man works very well. Its disarming use of camera to focus on the human element of the action, and not the detached traditional view of things that we are used to is both uncomfortable and powerful. Overall, a poignant and dramatic exploration of a major historic event without the all too common escapist quality generally associated with this type of entertainment. A-

First Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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