Released October 12, 2018
Rated PG-13 (Thematic Content, Peril, Brief Strong Language)
2 hr. 21 min.
Directed and Produced by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land)
Written by Josh Singer (Fringe, The Post)
Cinematography by Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, La La Land)
Music by Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash, La La Land)
Edited by Tom Cross (Whiplash, Hostiles)
Also Produced by Marty Bowen (The Nativity Story, The Hate U Give), Wyck Godfrey (I, Robot; The Maze Runner), and Isaac Klausner (Love, Simon; The Kill Team)
Starring Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Blade Runner 2049), Claire Foy (The Crown, Unsane), Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Chappaquiddick), Kyle Chandler (Argo, Game Night), Corey Stoll (House of Cards, Ant-Man), Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous, Gone Girl), Christopher Abbott (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, It Comes at Night), Ciarán Hinds (Silence, Red Sparrow), Olivia Hamilton (The Last Tycoon, La La Land), Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, 13 Hours), and Shea Whigham (Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Bad Times at the El Royale)
First Man is a great, powerful film that focuses on Neil Armstrong and his relationships with those around him more than the race to the Moon itself. This is the best place to focus, since we already have so much media on these events but so little insight into Neil Armstrong as a human being. First Man is a movie more interested in the sacrifices made by those who got a man on the Moon, the untenable odds against getting a man on the Moon, and the struggles of the man who first walked on the Moon than the scale and epic nature that we usually see in this story overall.
First Man is interested in showing us a side of the story that we have never seen before, and of which we have probably never thought. It takes a storytelling route that plays out both immersively and intimately, eschewing almost every biopic trope for the better. It leans on realism rather than dramatic effect.
In this impressive film, director Damien Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, and lead actor Ryan Gosling, basing their efforts largely on James R. Hansen’s in-depth biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, contextualize Armstrong, the high importance of context being a concept Chazelle and company clearly understand. They bring Armstrong down to Earth, so to speak, showing us a broken man, stoic and sharp and determined as he is, stricken with grief at the death of his young daughter and the deaths of five friends of his, who were also partaking in the space race. First Man shows us a lonely person, though it is a needless loneliness in some ways, looking to the stars, as so many of us do, for some kind of hope and some sort of redemption, as well as a different point of view, a new vantage point. In the end, however, we see how his relationships should have been receiving more of his attention, especially the relationship with his wife, Janet, played excellently by Claire Foy.
Even considering Chazelle’s more personal angle here, First Man still puts on fine display many of the events, and Chazelle illustrates these amazing, terrifying happenings with technical skill and places the audience there, feeling just how mechanical everything truly was, inside the surprisingly rickety cockpits, inside flying spacecraft that constituted little more than man-sized tin cans, held together by simple bolts and rivets and screws.
Chazelle and his team pull off these effects largely practically, and they filmed the whole affair, fittingly, on film itself: 16mm in the intimate scenes, 35mm in most other scenes, and IMAX 70mm during the Moon-landing scenes. Their sound design also works marvelously, taking claustrophobic advantage of silence for instance, and the score from Hurwitz supports perfectly, beginning the film with soft harps and ending with booming orchestration, as well as scattering Theremin, perhaps the loneliest-sounding of all instruments, throughout. If you get the chance to watch this film in IMAX, take it.
By the way, if you have stayed away from First Man thus far because of the “flag-planting controversy,” let me tell you this: The only people I have seen furthering that notion have not seen the movie. This movie is by no means unpatriotic. No, it does not show the act of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the Moon, but it does celebrate that flag in a glorious wide shot, and the American flag is admired by the camera’s eye multiple times throughout the film. On top of that, the movie makes it clear that the U.S. was trying to beat communist Russia to the Moon and emphasizes that indeed we did.
First Man also praises the U.S., particularly in the film’s conclusion, when it gives us that legendary speech from JFK and historical footage of numerous people around the world in awe of America’s achievement. When you watch the film, you will see that Chazelle omitted the flag-planting scene simply because it was not part of his narrative flow. In addition, this is another movie from 2018 that upholds the importance of family, and, as far as I’m concerned, that is reason enough to support the film.
I’m going to give First Man a 94%. My only issues with the movie are that Gosling’s performance may occasionally be just a bit too laconic, though his mannerisms, etc., ring true for people like him whom I have known, and the shaky cam, though it is utilized quite effectively, and though it helps achieve Chazelle’s desired effect, is almost (but not quite) too much at a couple points.
If you are going to see one film for the rest of the year, for my money that movie ought to be First Man. See it on the biggest screen you can, with the clearest audio you can find. The technical achievements alone make this film worth the effort, though the movie’s ambitions are more personal than that.
First Man will help you understand Neil Armstrong better, with its well-researched depiction, but it will also wow you and give you a new appreciation for the fortitude of Neil Armstrong and his comrades. It will make you think purposefully of both the first man on the Moon and America’s incredible achievement.