First Man - Review

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Space. A gold mine for budding film directors looking to go mainstream. They have been some of the cheesiest, most breathtaking films in the last decades, and are only improving with time. 2013’s Gravity reigns supreme in this field; combining scope, personality, and a genius director, it set the tone for films like Interstellar, The Martian, and now, First Man.

First Man tries to be everything all at once: A family drama, a character piece for Ryan Gosling, a stylistic tribute to the 60s spirit of America, and of course, special effects. It opens with Neil Armstrong (played by Gosling) breaking through Earth’s atmosphere and into space as part of a private flight company. Things take a turn, and Neil is left shooting away from Earth at a dizzying speed. After making just the right maneuver, he is able to come back down safely, narrowly avoiding certain death. There are three more scenes like this in First Man, and each is equally harrowing. I mention them because they are where the film succeeds the most. Sound design and inventive cinematography place us in the suits of the pilots, allowing us to see the wonders of space only after they themselves have. The film dodges the traditional wonder of space travel in favor of examining what it means to a single person. There are no sweeping shots of Earth, or even any real dangers, as we know how the story will end. But there is a deep sense of anticipation as the film nears the Apollo mission, masterfully executed by a director and crew at the top of their game.

Director Damien Chazelle’s influence is felt, despite his absence in writing. Josh Singer’s script, based on the book of the same name, is full of emotional opportunities for characters. Claire Foy in particular takes several high tension scenes, typically ending in Neil storming out of the room. She plays the concerned wife and stern mother, and despite her efforts comes across contrived. Her best scenes are choreographed, and lack the spontaneity of films like La La Land as she steps into the stylistic mold the script has lain out for her. He is gentle, but like many historic people, torn between his purpose and his family. By the time he reaches the Tranquility Base crater on the moon, it is clear that his efforts have been worthwhile. What that means for his future is unclear, as the ending explains. What is there to do after achieving such a monumental goal?

After my viewing of First Man, I had a bittersweet moment: I was satisfied with the level of quality displayed, and the unexpectedly gorgeous photography, but there was a sense of lost potential. After La La Land, I believed that Damien Chazelle could do anything. This film certainly smells of a studio idea handed off to an up and coming director, and while it delivers, it is unfortunate that Chazelle could not have had a larger role in the writing. Scenes lack his usual romantic dialogue, Claire Foy suffering the brunt of this. Her character could have been incredible, setting a new standard for the wife in drama, but it settles for what we have seen before. It’s difficult to see a Chazelle film without this, after the staggering bar set by Whiplash and La La Land. Soft and intelligent lighting is the only preserved aspect of his style that translates into First Man, and I could have used a lot more.

The story of Neil Armstrong is told in First Man through personal, deeply moving performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, a solid entry in the space drama genre; the film delivers on spectacle, but with such a talented director at the helm, should not have such a lack of clever dialogue and engaging characters.