****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. An unorthodox take on a “space movie” that I found to be ultimately satisfying and moving…but your mileage may vary.
First Man, written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle, is the story of Neil Armstrong and his long march to the moon. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, with supporting turns from Claire Foy, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler.
First Man is a film that, for good or for ill, defies expectations. One would expect a film about Neil Armstrong and NASA to be a “space” movie in the vein of the expansive The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, but First Man is not a conventional space movie but rather a painstakingly intimate movie that uses space as metaphor.
What makes Neil Armstrong such a compelling character not only in this film but in our culture, is that he was an exceedingly “normal” person. Armstrong was the everyman of the space program which turned him into a sort of empty vessel which the public could project upon whatever traits they wished. Armstrong was portrayed in the media as smart, strong, honorable, noble and patriotic, but what Chazelle does in First Man is make Armstrong less heroic and more human by showing him to be wounded.
Armstrong’s wound is so palpable and catastrophic that he must risk life and limb and travel 238,900 miles in an attempt to soothe it. Ultimately, Armstrong’s journey to the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, isn’t a running away from his wound, but a solemn yet desperate pilgrimage to it.
The moon in First Man is not a destination or ambition but a ghost, haunting Armstrong at every turn as he tries to take one small step for man through the fog of mourning in an attempt to regain his balance and find some semblance of normalcy once again.
By flouting “space movie” expectations, First Man can be a bit frustrating, but once you accept the premise and go along the dramatic journey, it becomes a remarkably satisfying and deeply moving experience. I readily admit that my own personal life experience made the film resonate with me and that others with a different life experience may not find it so worthwhile.
Emotional pull aside, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) shows a deft and skilled hand at the helm of First Man. Chazelle’s film wonderfully mirrors Armstrong the man and the character in that it is strictly compartmentalized. Armstrong walls off his emotions and contains his pain and Chazelle uses magnificent framing to express this dramatic reality.
Chazelle also pulls off shooting in very tight spaces, like in the cockpit of a space capsule, by embracing rather than shunning the claustrophobia of those places. Chazelle recreates the physically and emotionally suffocating experience of being compartmentalized to such a degree that you can’t even turn your head to look at the exit, never mind walk through it. Chazelle’s embrace of dramatic claustrophobia also pays off when the cinematic expanse of the moon is finally reached.
Ryan Gosling’s work as Neil Armstrong is spot on, as he keeps with the theme of the film by keeping Armstrong entirely contained. The pain pulsating through Gosling’s Armstrong is tangible, but he keeps it tightly controlled, never letting the wound gush, only fester. The final scene of the film beautifully illustrates Armstrong’s dilemma, he is walled off and isolated, if not quarantined, from the world, and even from his wife, and he is at a loss for words, but still has the desperate human need to connect, even if he is unable to.
The long journey of Armstrong to Lunar catharsis is so potent because it is so deftly and subtly portrayed by Gosling, who with First Man proves once again that he is more an actor than a movie star.
Claire Foy’s work as Janet, Armstrong’s wife, is equally compelling. Foy’s Janet is much more combustible than Neil, but that just means it takes more effort for her to keep herself together. Foy and Chazelle imbue Janet with a percolating dynamism through a focused intensity and a mildly floating hand-held camera that gives Janet the feel of being ever so slightly unbalanced and teetering out of control, like a satellite knocked off its orbit. Janet has a volcanic magnetism that is a testament to Foy’s making the most out of what, in lesser hands, would have been just another astronaut wife character, at best an adoring moon, but Foy’s Janet is a planet unto herself, spinning in a wilder orbit around a dying Sun.
The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll and Ciaran Hinds among many others, all do solid work in mostly underwritten roles. The supporting cast are most definitely very small pieces around the sun that is Ryan Gosling, who, along with Claire Foy, carry the emotional and dramatic weight of the picture.
First Man is really a story about alchemy through fire and ice (recurring themes throughout the film) and the psychological transformation and evolution that comes about through the alchemical Grail quest. Neil Armstrong’s connection to the cause of his existential anguish gets further and further away with every passing second, and he single-mindedly chases it through the fire of earth and its atmosphere all the way to the cold silence of the moon to catch up to it one last time.
In conclusion, First Man is not what you’d expect it to be, but it is all the better for it. I definitely recommend you spend your hard earned dollars to see it in the theatre (IMAX if possible). Director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling create a worthwhile and serious film of dramatic heft that turns the gigantic evolutionary moment of a human expedition to the moon into an intense and intimate evolutionary moment for a single man. When Neil Armstrong said it was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he would’ve been more accurate to say that it was “one small step for mankind, and one giant leap for his humanity”.