Although it was eclipsed in the box office by A Star is Born and Venom in its opening weekend, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is certainly the better film. The director who brought us Whiplash and 2016’s movie-musical for the ages La La Land, brings us the story of Neil Armstrong. Some who saw his previous two works may have thought Chazelle a one-trick-pony with an affinity for jazz storylines. But a space film? This is a daring testament to the filmmaker’s versatility.
First Man is a deep dive into the life of Neil Armstrong, played convincingly by Ryan Gosling, rather than the moon landing itself. Make no mistake, Neil does go to space; the film’s storyline details the long-term, leading-up-to the moon landing life of Armstrong. That is the frame in which Neil is presented, and it works.
Despite the risks taken by this new-age director, this is still a Chazelle film. The cinematography excels often. Shaky visuals capture with accuracy the movement and chaos of space. At one moment in the film, two ships dock to one another. The music and the choreography of it all gives the impression that the ships are dancing. This is the magic of Chazelle.
Gosling’s performance is well-executed and full of subtlety, as most of Gosling’s performances are. The fact that Gosling’s performances live in small nuances is the thing that usually makes or breaks public opinion on his acting ability. In First Man, this delicate performance is at its height as Gosling’s portrayal of the stoic, introverted American hero should earn an Oscar nod. One standout scene depicts Armstrong hiding away during his child’s funeral; Armstrong’s sobs lasting a moment too long for the audience to ignore his pain.
The unexpected star of the film, however, is Armstrong’s wife Janet, played with outstanding honesty by Claire Foy. She too, lost a daughter, and fears deeply the loss of her husband after a series of astronaut’s funerals. It is through her we experience the danger, loss, and pride this marathon to the moon caused the United States.
It is easy to forget what it was like in those years leading to the landing—to hide away the controversy and the tragedy the country sacrificed to fulfill the prophecy of JFK: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Chazelle tells this story responsibly, and with purpose. And I promise, there are plenty of American flags.