Let’s get this out of the way now, the American flag is more than present in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Despite what ridiculous controversy might try to claim this is a film that never ignores the American hero of Neil Armstrong and in doing so also gives thanks to the many men who came before him. First Man is a more intimate look at what a fresh start can do for someone in desperate need of it, and in doing so replaces high speed action with grounded emotions and admiration. Chazelle knows that you could recite this story yourself, but that doesn’t mean he can’t deliver yet enough satisfying take on the Apollo 11 mission.
First Man knows that you came to see the Ryan Gosling successfully land on the moon, but before that can happen it wants to have a little fun making you wait. It is 1961 and we open up with an intense flight test that comes off as a feverish nightmare. Instead we quickly learn this is all real as Gosling crashes into the dessert only to walk away and immediately try to figure out what went wrong using action not words. Gosling who is known for playing the quiet but determined man does this but turns it up to the eleventh level of tranquility. His level of calmness makes you want to rattle him just to see if you’d get a reaction. This doesn’t mean he is a man of mystery. Many details about his life are revealed through others, starting with a family tragedy that causes Armstrong to go even quieter.
After a family tragedy that kickstarts everything Armstrong finds himself being grounded as a pilot. After winning NASA over with his peaceful attitude he joins Project Gemini which was created to aid the Apollo Mission. Armstrong is more than determined to get to the Moon and demonstrates this by taking on every task and mission thrown his way. It gains the attention and sometimes jealously of his fellow pilots played by Jason Clarke and Patrick Fugit. The more exciting and heartbreaking moments come from Chazelle reminding us that these men all lived in the same American humble community provided by NASA making First Man one of the few films in recent history to respectfully pay homage to Frank Capra. This allows Chazelle to force our emotions to hit harder when the film becomes a question of “who will die next?” We know when a character is signed up to go to the Moon, but their name is not Armstrong or Aldrin that we will eventually be saying goodbye. In fact, much of First Man is a reminder of everyone who lost their lives for Armstrong could touch down on lunar surface. Chazelle’s take with this is not always delicate and sometimes borders the line of Nihilistic, yes these deaths have impact on everyone but when Corey Stall as Buzz Aldrin says “They have to pick me there is no one left” it makes it all the more obvious that Chazelle can’t get away from obsessing over his lead man.
As Armstrong gets closer to the Apollo mission the pain is felt more at home. While Chazelle has a clear problem of playing favorites it is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong who steals every scene she is in even if the role is all too familiar. When Foy is on the screen it is only then that we are reminded of everything Janet went through because of their devastating experience. As she continues to fight for her family she also finds herself aiding the women around her that now find themselves grieving. Foy so excellent on two seasons of Netflix’s “The Crown” ditches her native accent and becomes a full blooded American giving respect to the heroic wives who supported our Astronauts. It is these emotional moments that are sometimes lost in the process and does not come pick up until the final act.
And what a final act it is. There will be countless reviews and articles discussing the Apollo mission scenes in this film. If the film’s purpose was to make this critic feel absolutely nothing only to instantly feel everything than bravo Chazelle. There are too many analogies to compare the final act to the rest of the film, and while it is extraordinary it’s a reminder that Chazelle is the ultimate prankster. Whether it be Miles Teller’s prolonged drum solo in “Whiplash” or the epilogue of “La La Land”, one thing is clear, Chazelle is not the next big thing, but he somehow always gives us one Hell of an ending. Claustrophobia is front and center as Chazelle makes us enter the smallest of spaceships, the fog from Armstrong’s breathing covers his mask and our heart races with every flick of a switch. Once again Justin Hurwitz is back to score this journey and the man may soon find himself with another Oscar. The score, a blend of “2001” and every French New Wave brings a delicate sensation as the Eagle does indeed land. Some will argue that First Man is a film to see with a large audience, but when Gosling steps out onto the Moon all I will say is you won’t want to hear a single person ruffle through their popcorn. The sight of the first walk is breathtaking, but the emotions breakdown of emotions Armstrong finally shows reminds us why we go to the movies. If this is the best Damien Chazelle can do (and I fear it is) than he found his giant leap, even if most of the time we only took a small step.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language