By Ryen Thomas
October 14, 2018
First Man, brought to us by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, also nominated for Whiplash) and starring Ryan Gosling, promises a telling of Neil Armstrong’s race to becoming the first man ever to set foot on the Moon. But if you’re expecting a flick that razzles and dazzles with high energy, loads of special effects, heavy nostalgia and love fest for the 1960s, think again. This movie feels small and raw like an indie film and that’s what makes it stand out out amongst other seemingly similar Oscar Space bait like Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, Gravity and The Martian.
It’s a 2-hour and 21-minute intimate portrait of a man who suffers from a family loss, isolation and works out his grief through an event that becomes our history. Ryan beautifully portrays Armstrong as a stoic who prefers wearing a poker face, then his emotions on his sleeve. Thankfully, Chazelle, who’s becoming an artistic credit to his Millennial generation, keeps the camera close (uncomfortably close at times) and captures the acting Gosling performs with his eyes, brows and tight lipped smirks. When things get too uncomfortably quiet in the room, Neil’s wife (Claire Foy) serves to work as the audience’s proxy and ask the protagonist “what’s up in life?”
Life in this film avoids most of the trappings of period fair. There are no huge set pieces and/or a sweeping cinematic score serving to romanticize the era. Instead, we remain in tight spaces from Neil’s small home to the various space crafts NASA goes through in order to beat the Soviets and win the ultimate trip to the Moon. Sound works with the shaky camera to keep us claustrophobic and uncomfortable while watching; it’s the tense feeling one has when there’s turbulence on the plane..but worse. The road to the moon is paved with plenty of pain, trial, error and sacrifice, and you can hear and feel it every step of the way.
Given that history loves to remind us of all the hoopla surrounding the 1969 space lift off, you’d think we’d at least leave somber Neil for the relief of some epic shots featuring citizens in the crowd who’d later brag about where they were when the historical moment happened. Instead, the only time we abandon the NASA compound is to see average citizens complaining and wondering why their hard-earned American tax dollars were being used to send, “Whitty to space.” I feel like Chazelle chose to add in this kind of disillusionment in order to show that once Kennedy died, hope died and through the weariness, he makes a connection to the bleak polarization we have in today’s world. We, like the citizens in the 1960s, therefore need the kind of hope and big win one can probably only find from the heavens. We need a leader like JFK, with a vision that our country would work hard to fulfill. But allow me to dial down the political rhetoric and say that while parts of the film may lean too long on Neil’s first-person dreariness, the money moment showing Armstrong in space, takes advantage of the IMAX appearance and opens up like the moment Dorothy lands in Oz, walks out the house and is suddenly surrounded by technicolor glory. It’s a beautiful moment that thankfully doesn’t change the tone too drastically, but instead reminds us of what drives a stoic man like Armstrong. While on the moon, well intentioned filmmaking turns the most celestial moment into Neil’s most grounded and cathartic experience.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5