In Damien Chazelle’s First Man, one can’t help but feel the emotional toll of the space race. As an intense and emotional look at the moon landing through the eyes of its central figure. It’s a familiar but solid performance by Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. However, its attention to detail and stunning technical achievements prove that First Man is a resounding success.
Chazelle’s attention to detail is second to none and on a pure technical level, there aren’t many flaws to be found. First Man is a slice of Americana told with a deeply personal touch by a filmmaker who seems to really be hitting his stride. Chazelle places you in the space crafts with the technical precision of a skilled surgeon. In its camera placement and movements alone, you feel along for the ride and there are few films that are able to achieve what First Man does in this regard. All of this is accented by its bone-rattling sound design which is loud and intense when it needs to be, but pulled back when Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren want us to appreciate the expansiveness and tranquility of our moon.
It’s often claustrophobic and unflinchingly tense, but perhaps its biggest strength is Chazelle’s choice to really give you a personal experience. Using POV shots and close-ups, the Oscar winning director imbeds the viewer into the life of Armstrong, a man with a passion and dedication to his work. His work seems to take a toll on his home life and his occasional contentious relationship with his wife Janet, played by Claire Foy. Yet, through it all, every moment and rift between the two of them feels earned on both sides.
Gosling isn’t doing anything transcendent in the film. In fact, the role inherently plays to one of his greatest strengths as an actor. With First Man, Gosling is reserved, quiet but confident. It’s a character with similarities to his turn as “The Driver” in Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece Drive. Both are men of few words, but say exactly what they need to say without the long melodramatic monologues frequently found in so-called “prestige” biopics.
What is clear about First Man, is Chazelle, and a strong script from Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), bring to the screen a biopic that feels fresh. I would’ve watched another 30 minutes of this film. First Man is less about the overall effect of the space race, and more intent to give the viewer a peak behind the curtain. It is a look at the sacrifice of men who believed in this cause. It is throughly patriotic in the sense that for a couple hours, we are transported to a time and place in our nation’s history where we dreamt big even at a high point of civil unrest. First Man begs the viewer to look into the eyes of the sacrifice made and its toll on the men who achieved the dream ultimately. First Man is among the best of 2018, a sure fire contender for this coming awards season.