To say director Damien Chazelle has had an impressive recent directorial run would be an understatement. From the examination of the tortured artist in Whiplash to the classic Hollywood romanticism of pursuing your passion in La La Land, Chazelle has dazzled delivering some of the most exceptional cinema of the decade. With the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, Chazelle is embarking uncharted territory by tackling a story whose scope and magnitude is unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. Not only does he manage to craft some of the most immersive and realistic space sequences ever put to film, but he also constructs a profoundly intimate and emotional character study of Neil and his family. Damien Chazelle proves his versatility and expert craftsmanship as a filmmaker by blasting off with this exhilarating telling of the Apollo 11 mission.
First Man is based off of the Neil Armstrong biography of the same name written by James R. Hansen and follows Neil (Ryan Gosling) as he embarks upon one of the boldest risks of mankind: landing on the moon. In a space race against the Soviets, the film deconstructs the Gemini and Apollo program, highlighting heavily the immense risk involved. As the chances of Neil’s survival become uncertain, he must come to terms with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and two sons.
Chazelle is drawn to stories about passionate artists working their fingers to the bone (in some cases literally) and making incredible sacrifices to succeed. It’s with that in mind that it only makes complete sense for Chazelle to tell the story of Neil Armstrong. Armstrong may not have been an artist in the literal sense, but he embodied the passion and drive that is found in most all of Chazelle’s characters. He takes the time to show how Neil worked tirelessly, even through tragedy, while full well knowing that during any of these tests or launches it could be the end for him. It’s that drive, bravery, and sacrifice that acts as the backbone to First Man and we see the effect that it has on his family. Janet is fully aware of the constant failed attempts and near death crashes the program has endured, and as the film progresses Chazelle cleverly interweaves footage of it taking a toll on her. All of this leads to an emotional confrontation between her and Neil in which she demands he sit the boys down and prepare them for the fact that he may never return. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film enhanced further by expert performances for Claire Foy especially and Ryan Gosling.
Regarding the performances themselves, you can be sure both Gosling and Foy will be in contention for acting accolades. Ryan Gosling exhibits a somber portrayal of Neil Armstrong, one that I can only believe is as cinematically close to the historical figure as he could get. Armstrong is not a man of many words, but his devotion to achieving the impossible could not be any more prominent. On top of that, Gosling isn’t afraid of reaching a more vulnerable side to the character resulting in several isolated moments where he can’t help but break down due to the failures and losses the program has amassed. It’s a subtle performance with such nuance that does the historical icon justice. As for Claire Foy, she masterfully conveys the strength and composure of Janet through the entirety of the journey. She is the rock for her two sons and isn’t afraid to forwardly express her opinions, even to NASA officials. Foy commands the screen in several scenes as she makes the audiences fully aware of the sacrifice her family is making.
Before screening the film, Neil’s sons, Mark and Eric Armstrong, took the stage to acknowledge the incredible achievement Chazelle had pulled off, and there was no higher praise then when they said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, “You want to know what it was like? Well, you’re about to see it.” That statement stuck with me throughout the entirety of the film's runtime. With one of the tensest and most white knuckling openings I’ve seen to a film since Dunkirk, Chazelle gives us a small taste of the experiences to come. He accurately depicts every experiment, launch, and landing with such intensity and honestly embraces the numerous failures along with the well-earned successes. From the second the astronauts are enclosed within the steel chamber of the rocket, we are locked inside with them. Every rattle, thrust and spinning gauge is viscerally felt making for an exhilarating, yet terrifying ride to the finish. All of this builds up to an exceptionally breathtaking finale that showcases the entirety of the moon landing. Paired with an astonishing score from Justin Hurwitz, it’s as if the audience is experiencing the landing for the first time without prior knowledge of the outcome. It’s honestly one of the most spectacular space sequences I’ve ever experienced.
If we’re looking at Damien Chazelle’s track record now, he’s four for four and has announced to the world with such spectacle that it doesn’t matter the genre or style of film he’s making, he can expertly go to infinity and beyond.
Toronto International Film Festival Review: First Man
Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Cory Stoll, Jason Clarke
Rated PG-13, 138 Min
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