First Man is a new drama from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, who returns to the director’s seat after his Oscar-controversy-raising La La Land, and stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the man who would become the titular “First Man” to walk on the Moon. Both Men have worked together before and were both nominated for Oscars for that film, and it seems as if that will be the case once again.
If you’re expecting an exciting space adventure about the Apollo 11 mission then you’re going to be disappointed. If you go in expecting a story about the entire operation, the missions building up to the grand finale, and Armstrong’s journey through grief acceptance, from the traumatic loss of his daughter to a brain tumour, to the subsequent deaths of both his best friends as a result of failed missions, then you’ll be quite satisfied.
Much like how JAWS isn’t about the Shark, more so about Chief Brody and his hunt to stop the rampaging monster, First Man is not about going to the moon, more so about a man coming to terms with grief and his struggle to keep any ounce of humanity, and sanity, for the sake of his wife and children. This is highlighted by a brilliant scene in which Neil’s wife forces him to sit down with his two sons so he can tell them that he may not return from his final mission into space, which he struggles to do so with the empathy of a father.
From the get-go, it’s already fairly obvious that First Man is a high contender for all the Technical Categories. With the metal chase shaking around us, we feel as if we are in the cockpit of the shuttle along with Neil as he flies out of earths orbit and then comes rocketing (pardon the pun) back down to Earth. Every creak and rattle, the turbulence, the light from the sun flashing on and off through the windows as the shuttle spins, it’s all felt and all adds to the atmosphere.
Throughout the movie, whenever we are in space, we are accompanied by a Theremin-featured Score, a classic concept for any sci-fi, however to counter this and subvert expectations of the cliché, we almost never leave the shuttles, (only rarely are we on the outside of the shuttle, though it’s always in mounted-camera shots to give it a grounded feel). The first, and only time, we get Free Third Person Camera shots in space is when we finally reach the moon, at the very end, and this is introduced through the camera being sucked out of the shuttle into the atmosphere when the pod door is open, and the camera is left floating (allowing the audience to take in the scenery).
Gosling’s performance as Neil Armstrong is cold and distant, which if you’ve heard what Buzz Aldrin, played in this film by Corey Stoll, has to say about Armstrong then the portrayal is quite accurate. A fair criticism of the performance is that the film doesn’t take a lot of time to heavily focus on Neil’s slow breakdown as an effect of the deaths of his daughter and friends, only giving us hints or single scenes, but then usually restoring him to a hard-skinned, stoic character. It should also be noted that no other character really has a stand-out performance as many of the scenes are Neil focused, which as this is a biopic can be forgiven, but it’s very apparent that the film sees the secondary characters as just that, secondary, and therefore feel undeveloped which is quite disappointing.
Overall, the film feels like the makings of a genuine modern masterpiece, close to that of Kubrick’s 2001. If it had taken time to flesh out other characters, and even more time to capitalise on the breakdown of Armstrong (Gosling didn’t even get his signature Outburst scene). Aside from that though, I have no doubts that this film will be nominated for, and probably be victorious in winning, the technical categories such as Cinematography, Visual Effects and Sound Mixing, as well as Best Director for Chazelle, Actor for Gosling (both of whom will be contending with Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born), and Best Feature Film.