After gaining popularity and critical acclaim for his previous two works, La La Land and Whiplash, Director Damien Chazelle has a lot to live up to in terms of a follow up to his previous film which garnered 12 Academy Award nominations and 6 wins, with one of the awards going to Chazelle himself for Best Director. Enter the 2018 Biopic, First Man, which details the life of Neil Armstrong leading up to the Apollo 11 Mission which was responsible for the first flight that got men on the moon. Expectations were high going into this film, with Chazelle re-teaming with La La Land alum Ryan Gosling for the film as well as longtime collaborator and composer Justin Hurwitz for the score. Overall, First Man meets all the expectations of a Damien Chazelle film, and then some.
The film focuses on the beginnings of Project Gemini as well as the Apollo mission, but at the forefront of the story is Gosling’s Armstrong. This film takes a more personal approach than most biopics usually go for, especially films that have covered this topic before. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) go a different direction than expected with a focus on the mentality of Neil Armstrong as well as a focus on his personal life. It is with this aspect of the story that Ryan Gosling truly shines, as his performance captures strong and intense emotions from the character, providing a very real and accurate portrayal of the real-life hero.
Ryan Gosling acts opposite Claire Foy, who plays his wife Janet Shearon. She makes a great counter to Gosling’s more nuanced and quiet performance as the titular astronaut. Foy brings an electric presence to the screen in the moments where Gosling acts more with his demeanor than loud verbal physicality. The two actors opposite approaches to their performances make for some really great back and forth with their characters for some great compelling drama whenever the focus isn’t on the Apollo Mission.
Speaking of, the mission that is at the center of the movie is nothing to be taken lightly either. Right from the start of the film, Armstrong is thrown into the thick of the Space Race, with him and his colleagues remaining undeterred in their mission to beat the Soviets to the moon. This is a mission that Chazelle displays with such intensity that makes what could be a boring film with a procedural format much more interesting and visceral. The performances from actors such as Jason Clarke make all of it seem more real and allow history and its sacrifices to be relived with a whole new intensity.
A part of the reason that intensity is captured so well is the cinematography by Linus Sandgren, reteaming with Chazelle after the beautifully shot La La Land. Sandgren goes for a different approach for this film, with lots of shaky cam for multiple “take off” moments that really make you feel like you’re in the cockpit as well. The locales in space for the grand finale are the most stunning that have been put on screen, with the surface of the moon and all that follows looking astonishing, especially in an IMAX format. The rest of the film also has very much of an old school look to it, with grainy film textures that expertly match the 1960’s aesthetic. Everything feels more personal, from the close quarters cockpits of the ship to Armstrong’s home, which is what I believe director Damien Chazelle wanted to do with this film. Though not as beautiful or as colorful as La La Land, it’s just as well shot.
Everything is topped off by the beautiful and mesmerizing score from Justin Hurwitz, a longtime collaborator and close friend of Damien Chazelle. After working on two films where music was one of the primary driving forces of the film, Hurwitz takes a step back and makes great background music that rarely takes the forefront of a scene. When it does take the spotlight, however, it Takes it. Hurwitz’s beautifully composed music compliments Sandgren’s shots so well it makes for some of the most beautiful moments in this year’s cinema. The music and shot composition can only be compared to Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey with its slow burn and meticulous choreography, coming out of some sort of galactic ballet of giant machinery to advance mankind into its next great achievement. The slow pace doesn’t suit the film in all of its scenes though, and that would be my only complaint of the film.
Overall, First Man more than lived up to the expectations of another Chazelle film. While nothing like his three other films before this, the Director bravely goes where he hasn’t before with a compelling biopic that takes a look at the man behind the spacesuit with some beautiful music and cinematography, and one of Gosling’s most nuanced and emotional performances. First Man is a triumph and a visceral experience that is not to be missed. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Score – 9.5/10