Fresh off of their six-time Academy Award winning musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling return for Universal Pictures’ First Man, following Neil Armstrong’s role in NASA’s race to space from 1961 to 1969. 

First Man represented breaking ground in more than one facet, as Damien Chazelle enters unchartered territory for himself tackling on a historical bio-pic after revitalizing the music-film genre with 2015’s Whiplash and 2017’s La La Land.  First Man represented a challenge, if nothing else to the rising star filmmaker who had a gargantuan task at hand replicating the same magic that the space race did a mere 4+ decades prior.

Starting in 1961, the film chronicles Armstrong’s journey through the space program, starting with his work as an engineer and test pilot all the way to him joining the NASA program with the initiative to get men on the moon.  Through exposition in the film,  we’re told that the goal is to defeat the Soviets in the race to space as they are dominating in their trials of space transportation and are planning a lunar landing- forcing both the Americans and the Soviets to gear up for an intense race. The foundation is laid with Gemini missions that will pave the way for Rend Dock (docking in space), which is essential for making the trip to the moon.

“First Man” is written by Josh Singer and is based on James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, although, for obvious reasons, the film covers historical moments. Armstrong’s youth is skipped past as we flash forward to his adult life and the beginning of his journey to become the first man on the moon.

Chazelle’s La La Land star Ryan Gosling is helms the infamous astronaut, providing a stoic performance whilst almost blending into the background through significant portions of the film.  Rather than focusing solely on purely the historical moment, the film revolves on the theme of grief. Starting with the the loss of his young daughter Karen, the film follows Armstrong as he tries to cope with loss whilst being a father to his other children. Dealing with the emotional toll on himself and his family acts as the driving point in the film, Jan(Claire Foy) bares the front of the who finally reaches her breaking point forces his response as a husband and father and to become an active part of the family rather than the rabbit hole that NASA seemingly had become. Foy is magnificent in the role, almost surely to be in consideration for an Oscar. Home scenes in Houston leave an indelible impact about just what’s at stake without drifting into manipulative tearjerking. Jan, who is always available to comfort other astronaut wives, is harder on the men who wear a mask of bravado

From a directorial standpoint, it is clear that Chazelle had a clear vision for the look of the movie,especially the space scenes, putting viewers inside the cockpits of these vehicles and get a feel for what it was like for Armstrong and his colleagues to risk their lives, feeling the turbulence build up and the intense breathing from the brave men. The danger feels imminent throughout the scenes in which Armstrong is strapped into his chair- especially during the Gemini 8 mission.Putting viewers into Armstrong’s experience and creating a realness and a level of intensity is a monumental accomplishment because we know the end of this tale. We shouldn’t feel any danger or risk, but through technical brilliance encompassing top tier cinematography, crisp editing, and dimensional sound mixing, the experience becomes surreal in comparison to your average film.

The problem with the film falls at the feet of the protagonist. Defenders of the portrayal of Neil Armstrong could argue that First Man has no intentions of being a biopic at all and that Armstrong is simply the way for Chazelle and screenwriters  to tell a story about the space program. But if that were their intention, than it’s a peculiar choice to say the least to have such integral moments of the film revolving around the loss that Neil Armstrong suffers. For Gosling, it seems as a step down from his recent hot streak( Blade Runner 2049, La La Land, The Nice Guys) as he provides a satisfactory, yet unspectacular performance with handiling Armstrong’s emotional weight. It’s clear that Armstrong is subdued and isolated, the character doesn’t fair well as a protagonist. The screenplay tries to make Armstrong a sympathetic character but we rarely see Armstrong grieve or react in a way that makes him relatable. He keeps his emotions bottled up and always remains subdued. The emotional disconnect creates a barrier between viewers and the characters on screen, making it nearly impossible for viewers to feel any emotional impact from the monumental actions that are parlaying on-screen.

Calling First Man your typical  Oscarbait is a disservice to the filmmaker and the actors involved, as the technical skill that the film garnered is unparallel. When First Man is following Armstrong’s space travel Chazelle crafts a hyperrealistic vision, aided with some of the best camera work and sound editing throughout the film. From a technical standpoint, the film sets a new bar for other movies about the history of a historical event. However, when the focus is on Armstrong and the large gaps in between the space travels, the film fails to live up to the sky high expectations it set out to be.

Grade:C+

Ananth Para
paramana@mcmaster.ca

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