Hollywood tends to be guilty of over-glorifying its subjects. This leads to a glamourized, and ultimately distorted perception of famous figures. Once in a blue moon, however, cinema actually demonstrates a profound power in humanizing our cherished icons, stripping away the fame and grandeur to reveal the beating, and often scarred, hearts at their cores. Damien Chazelle’s latest film does just that. Based on the life of Neil Armstrong, First Man not only commemorates his towering achievement, but offers a sensitive and painstaking portrait of the first man on the moon.
It’s the fourth movie from Chazelle, who rose to prominence with his first major motion picture Whiplash in 2014, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won three. Chazelle followed this up with his dream project La La Land in 2016, which swept the floor with 13 nominations, and famously lost Best Picture to Moonlight after the prize was mistakenly awarded. Another two years later, and Chazelle is back with First Man, and it may not quite reach the lofty heights of his prior films, but it is still an astonishing work all the same.
First Man is the first film in Chazelle’s career to not prominently feature music, and specifically jazz music. In that regard, you would expect it to be a fairly strong change in pace for a director who has previously employed nerve-shattering suspense and lush fantasy to shift to material rooted in real-life accounts and science. As Chazelle displays here, however, the director boasts a wide range of talents, with human drama reigning chief among them. And the story of Neil Armstrong, as you will find, lends itself to more music and fantasy than you might imagine.
Most millennials living today, as well as anyone else born post-1969, likely have a knowledge of Neil Armstrong that more or less begins and ends with his legendary newscast in which he declared, “that’s one small step for man, (inaudibly, he actually uttered a man) one giant leap for mankind.” As First Man portrays, the astronaut faced a long and challenging journey before even boarding Apollo 11, let alone before that effortless first step onto another world. Fair warning: if you prefer your heroes to be incapable of error, then you should prepare to be disappointed.
Chazelle’s film depicts a private and reserved man of the military (Ryan Gosling) who aspires to do important things, but is uncomfortable under the spotlight. Along with his first wife Janet (Claire Foy), he suffers the loss of his three-year-old daughter to a brain tumor. This deeply rattles him for the years to follow, but he never utters so much as one word about it to his wife, damaging their relationship. To make matters worse, the hazards of space training take the lives of many of his comrades, trauma he responds to by immersing himself further into the work.
The Armstrongs’ marriage had deteriorated by 1994, and First Man examines the origins of the cracks and where they start to widen, such as when Janet forced Neil last-minute to explain to their two sons that he might not come back from the moon. It’s another exemplary performance from Ryan Gosling, who has exhibited prowess with muted, layered characters in past works such as 2011’s Drive. It’s also talented work from Foy, whose cinematic coming-out party continues this fall as the couple’s stabilizer; both can expect Oscar attention come this winter.
But this isn’t just a story about one man’s family life, but about his experiences as the first person to walk on the moon, and First Man blasts off to the stars in this area as well. Chazelle floored critics with his masterful orchestration of suspense in Whiplash, but he hasn’t been able to prove until now that his abilities with intimate situations can apply to concepts with elaborate special effects. He hasn’t lost his love for music either, re-teaming with composer Justin Hurwitz of La La Land to present a lush, eerie score reminiscent of the classical cues in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
On its face, a film about the moon may seem like an unusual choice for a director accomplished in fantasy, but the very essence of mankind’s relationship with the moon is rife with magic. It’s a fact as old as cinema itself, tracing back to Georges Méliès’ 1902 fantasy A Trip to the Moon, our oldest surviving classic whose origins is inspired by humanity’s enchantment with the moon. Chazelle is very much aware of this, and uses it to mighty effect with realistic and gorgeous lunar imagery. When Neil takes that first step, the mystification with the otherworldly is mutual.
As Chazelle seeks to illustrate the humbling awe of our species’ first encounter with the unknown, as well as Neil’s personal motivations for going there, you will find there’s little surprise as to why he chose not to focus on the planting of the American flag, a move that is stirring up some controversy. With plenty of time spent stressing America’s contributions to Project Apollo and their vital significance within politics, First Man is far from anti-patriotic, and yet properly emphasizes the moon landing as an accomplishment for humankind as a whole.
It’s another walloping screenplay from Josh Singer, who for the first time ventures outside the topic of journalism after 2015’s Oscar winner Spotlight and last year’s nominee The Post, the same way Chazelle successfully branches out from jazz for the first time. It’s also further proof that the director a stupendous artist, as there are surely more outstanding projects from him to look forward to as he keeps expanding his horizons. For now, we can expect to see him at the Oscars again, as First Man is a deserving tribute to a man who showed us the sky isn’t truly the limit.
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