First Man (2018)
Director – Damien Chazelle
Writer – Josh Singer (screenplay), James R. Hansen (book)
Starring – Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Rating – PG-13
Genre – Biography, Drama, History
Metascore – 86/100
Rotten Tomatoes – 88%
There is no shortage of movies set in space. Humans are fascinated with space: its limitless expanse, the knowledge we might find up there, and even the potential dangers it poses. Most movies set in space are, at their core, about space. First Man, on the other hand, may deal with space travel; but it is about Neil Armstrong, answering the question: “What kind of person can achieve this sort of goal?” The film answers that question marvelously, using brilliant pacing and great performances by its central cast. Unfortunately, questionable camera work and some other minor issues prevent this film from being absolutely transcendent for its full length.
First Man follows Neil Armstrong from his days as an engineer and test pilot, to his historic act of taking a small step on the moon’s surface. This is an excellent choice by the screenwriter, as it does not ground hope merely with the success of the moon landing, but with Neil personally. Our hopes are tied up with his. The movie goes to great lengths to show that the success achieved in 1969 was no isolated event, but the result of years of hard work and perseverance through failure. The pacing of First Man allows us to feel each failure deeply, and celebrate each success, making the final triumph even more powerful.
The two leads of First Man, Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, give incredible performances that carry most of the dramatic weight of the film. Gosling takes on the role of Armstrong, giving audiences an intimate look at the man. His performance is understated, yet powerful, painting a picture of a man stricken by grief and totally poured out for his work and this one goal: reaching the moon. Conversely, Foy surprises in her portrayal of Janet Armstrong, conveying a strength and assertiveness that shone next to Gosling’s reserved performance.
The movie, for all its wonder, was not without flaw. A technique employed by Chazelle, handheld “shaky-cam,” led to mixed results. In space sequences, the decision worked well, forging a visceral, physiological connection between the audience and images on screen. These shots put us right there with Armstrong as rockets took off and landed. On the other hand, this same technique was also used in quieter dialogue scenes between two characters. In this context, this decision to go with a handheld, always in motion camera did not add intimacy or drama as was intended. Instead, it distracted from the conflict of the scenes, and even went as far as feeling gimmicky at times.
First Man is a triumphant, powerful movie about the kind of person that can undertake a task so daunting as a moon landing. Gosling and Foy deliver incredible performances, and a well-paced story gives us a visceral, emotional story of victory and courage in the face of setbacks and tragedy. While not without minor flaws, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is an early contender for Best Picture.
Author: Josh Johnson