First Man review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Damien Chazelle has at the very least proven he’s not a director held to jazz. First Man marks his first biopic and it’s certainly one that stands out for taking a contemplative aim at the journey of Neil Armstrong through the space program that led him to the moon. Is it a wholly accurate portrayal of Armstrong? Probably not but Chazelle succeeds greatly at trying to get us more into the cockpit than inside the full and dry history of the legendary astronaut.
Neil is played by Ryan Gosling as a reserved man, quiet and distant, trying to keep his work separate from his family life. He loses a very young child a tumor but doesn’t let him slow it down. Everyone thinks it would make him want to take some time off but he’s right back in the office after some fast and hard grieving, leaving his tears and memories at home. When he’s at the office as a pilot, nothing distracts him. Or at least he doesn’t let it show. I can’t say I blame him when it comes to piloting crafts into the atmosphere where one wrong move or tiny error and death is assured. It’s this determination that keeps him sharp, focused, and a prime candidate for the space race to the moon at NASA.
It’s not an easy life for his wife Janet (Claire Foy). She tries to stay with her man as her family is moved about the country for Neil’s work but it certainly takes its toll. Janet is not as strong as her husband when it comes to watching the man of the NASA program suffer deaths as the dangerous testing continues. There is only so much of Neil’s quiet nature she can take before she eventually explodes on him for how he treats every day as just another day at the office, including the eventual Apollo launch. Neil can play cheerfully with his kids but when it comes time to tell them that he’ll be heading off to the moon, he gives them the same talk he gives a press conference. He just doesn’t want to talk about it.
Aside from Gosling’s beautifully contained performance and Foy absolutely dominating in her role, Chazelle’s direction keeps the film an intense one of flights that could go wrong at any moment. I love how he keeps us saddled right next to Neil during these many tests and adventures above the planet, seeing and hearing everything he senses from within the cramped cockpits. Our vision limited and hearing plagued by gauges, radio static, and howling metal, it’s a shaky and terrifying experience, especially during the film’s most horrific scene of a test capsule gone wrong where the electronics catch fire and the astronauts are burned alive. The most frightening of scenes features Neil struggling to stabilize his craft during a docking procedure that sends him spinning faster and faster to the point of nearly passing out.
Chazelle still proves he has a way with the camera, making great use of the space and lighting, everywhere from the cramped lunar lander to the hallways of Neil’s home. And then there’s the eventual landing of the lunar module on the surface of the moon, kept tastefully devoid of sound and falling back on the memorable audio from that monumental event. Chazelle holds back on trying to amp up the scene, keeping it more contemplative, almost more than it probably was for Neil about coming to terms with death if there were such thoughts bouncing around in the furthest pockets of his mind.
First Man certainly isn’t Chazelle’s strongest picture. It develops many characters, including a cocky Buzz Aldrin played by Corey Stoll, but then doesn’t do much with them. Much like Neil, the film remains far more focused on the mission to the moon rather than Armstrong’s relationships, existing as distant echoes he tries to shut out. But for what the film is as an experience to perhaps peer inside Armstrong’s helmet and feel every quake of ascending to outer space, Chazelle delivers an engaging film if not as straight.