First Man, focused squarely on the eponymous “first man on the moon,” Neil Armstrong, is a big, bright, ambitious film. It is packed with stars and full of larger-than-life moments. But its mission statement is to make the historical feel human and personal – by showing a society and an ordinary family life that is so pressure-laden and restrained, that the burst of innovation should also work as an indicator of the time ahead.
This sentiment mirrors the cinematic path of Damien Chazelle, the director of First Man.
33-year-old Chazelle is an exciting new force in Hollywood. His two major studio works thus far, Whiplash and La La Land, have both been smash hits with audiences and critics alike. With all the cache and confidence of a newly-minted Oscar winner, this is his carte blanche to do whatever he wants with as much freedom as you can get in such a huge project.
You can feel his enthusiasm about the subject, and see its possibilities practically jump at you from the screen. That is exciting and at times really glorious, in the craft and dedication apparent in a lot of the scenes in First Man. Perhaps he is also, again, a little consumed by his own possibilities, as this movie clocks in at just under two and a half hours.
While I would not say that he wastes this time, the length does mess with the flow of the narrative a little.
Arguably the most tightly action-packed scene of the film, its opening, throws the viewer alongside Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong into a tin can of a flight vessel that is edging towards the atmosphere. The notion of danger in pioneering is brought to the audience in a visceral, suspenseful way.
Immediately afterwards, we are brought into the personal trauma of Armstrong’s family. The loss of a daughter continues to be the emotional backbone for Gosling’s stoic, distant Armstrong.
The portrayal works on many levels. Mainly Gosling’s own inherent stoicism seems like the perfect fit.
But more wholly, he reflects the remove and emotional distance one associates with the time period’s patriarchs. This isolation bleeds into the interactions with his wife – played by Claire Foy, the audience’s main surrogate – to unflinchingly display the effects of his behavior.
Her desperation at her emotionally and communicatively unavailable husband prevents the film from resorting too much to hero worship. But it is also a frustratingly slow turn after being thrown into the exciting world of Armstrong’s test piloting.
Again, the run time north of two hours allows Chazelle to go deep into his character, but also to lose himself a bit between the domestic and historic. The jump to NASA and the subsequent training scenes work to keep up tensions in the historic realm.
These scenes represent a strong turn in contemporary film-making, to exhibiting an awareness both of the inevitable patriotism inherent to this kind of tale and the challenge to subvert this narrow view of America with some historical, critical currents towards the space program.
The challenge here is to keep the mystique about our protagonist and his quest while showing the many downsides that this project bore for American society and the world at large. First Man mostly steps up to this challenge, conceding some nuance via small montages of critical viewpoints.
Almost like a rite of passage, these bumps on the road to Armstrong’s ascent finally give way to the sort of sweeping, ambitious sequence that we have come to except from this kind of movie.
Shot in the massive IMAX format and with the sole focus on Armstrong and his mission, the last act of the film builds on all the previous test flights and cockpit shots to show just how dangerous, demanding and ramshackle the operation itself was.