Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Opening in Atlanta this Friday is the new visceral recounting of Neil Armstrong’s story, First Man. Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as its two primary leads, the film explores Neil Armstrong’s personal journey and how it leads to one of the most monumental events in human history. First Man opens in theaters on October 12th, 2018.
When it comes to First Man, the follow-up film of Academy-Award winning director Damien Chazelle, it often times feels like almost the complete opposite of the director’s other works, namely La La Land and Whiplash. While those films were brash with emotion and color in its storytelling and narrative structure, First Man almost completely swerves those notions with a film that leans in heavily to the quieter side of a story that is monumental and loud in its scale. It’s an impressive feat and one that is highlighted by the film’s excellent and subtle performances from both Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. These two performances embellish in the film’s boldness and daringness, creating characters that are defined in every sense of the word. They play a pivotal role in defining Armstrong’s journey in addition to the scoping technicalities of the film, from its jiggery and fast-paced editing to its uptight and personal cinematography. First Man is a bold, innovative work from director Damien Chazelle that has the courage to be quiet in the face of such a loudly monumental topic, even if the film sometimes feels hollow in its meaty length.
First Man marks the first time in Damien Chazelle’s career of directing where he did not play a hand in writing the script. The screenplay is currently credited entirely to Josh Singer who based the script off James R. Hansen’s novel of the same name. When discovering this detail after viewing the screening, I found myself shocked. Throughout the film, there never seems to be a disconnect with what the screenwriter intended and Chazelle actually put on the screen. Other recent films have generally been burdened with the flaw that a moment the screenwriter may have envisioned in one way is completely sidelined with what the director actually does. It’s certainly a frustrating event for both sides of the coin, and it should be attributed to Chazelle that he had the maturity to avoid this temptation.
Without a dose of improper interpretation, Singer’s script is able to be completely fulfilled onto the big screen, resulting in a brilliant collage of thematic and daring elements. The landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon was a monumental moment for history that had an impact that was felt across the entire planet. With that historical fact, it’s easy to see how an amateur filmmaker would have opted for a loudly proud and prideful film that constantly focuses on the monumental impact of the situation. However, Chazelle proves his maturity as a director by opting to showcase the more personal side of the story, a side that is rarely seen or discussed in any space films. He portrays Armstrong with a sincere subtlety that carries throughout the entire film, even in the heightened moments of tension in space. It keeps the film grounded and always keeps it focused on its one subject: Neil Armstrong. A fantastic example of this would be the very last scene of the film, where not a single word is spoken but there is so much thematic material occurring on the screen between the two leads.
But while the screenplay may be daring and effectively quiet, there are definite issues to note, namely the pacing and length of the film. It often feels too stretched out, particularly in the first act, leading to a third act that feels somewhat muddled in its execution with critical moments lacking solid emotional resonance. It’s an issue that doesn’t entirely shatter the experience, but does come close to completely de-railing the third act.
As for the performances, First Man boasts a star-studded cast, from Academy-Award nominated Ryan Gosling to his fellow female lead, Claire Foy. These two are easily the highlights of this cast, with their performances continuing with the subtlety that Chazelle so elegantly illustrates with the storytelling of the film. Gosling never seems as if he is wanting the audience to feel emotions; he is essentially giving them the motivation to. And while the quiet and somewhat devoid of charisma performance may prove to be controversial to some, it ultimately keeps the film on track and allows for thematic imagery unprecedented in most space films.
However, as a space film, there is certainly an expectation from both the audience and the industry that the film delivers on creating some fantastically tense sequences, a task that the film accomplishes with flying colors. Opting for a grounded and rugged feel, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross is able to place the audience directly into Armstrong’s seat, a feeling similar to that of the 2017 critically acclaimed Dunkirk. I found myself on the very edge of the seat multiple points throughout the film, an impressive feat given that most audiences will already be aware of the outcome of the film.
As a collective whole, First Man is a daunting and scarily vivid piece from director Damien Chazelle. With this film, Chazelle is able to fully express his maturity as a director and filmmaker, by creating a film that is seamless with its screenplay and star-studded performances from Gosling and Foy. Even more so than La La Land, First Man proves the craft and spectrum of Chazelle as a filmmaker, resulting in a wondrous film that is impressively daring to be quiet.
Score: 9.3 out of 10