Damien Chazelle has quickly risen through the ranks of Hollywood to become one the best directors of this generation with both Whiplash and La La Land being among the best films of 2014 and 2016, respectively. Taking a break from his love of jazz, Chazelle literally shoots for the moon with First Man, a riveting biopic on Neil Armstrong and NASA’s race to be the first to land on the moon. Featuring subtle and grounded performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, the film will take your breath away with some of the best astronaut and space sequences in film history.
Test pilot and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies to NASA’s space program as the United States strives to be the first ones to land on the moon. As the missions become more complex and more dangerous, it quickly becomes apparent just how much of an impossible task everyone has in front of them. As Armstrong continues to push his own limits to the max, he becomes more distant with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their kids, who worry whether or not their husband and father is going to make it home alive at all.
What makes First Man so intense is that Chazelle puts audiences inside the space shuttle as many of the these astronaut scenes are shown directly from Armstrong’s perspective. When Armstrong goes into space for the first time, we never see the outside of the shuttle. Instead, all we see is the ground outside a tiny window getting smaller and smaller as this metal rocket violent shakes all around. It’s intense, awe-inspiring, and even a little claustrophobic. As amazing as these sequences look, however, it’s the sound design the truly sets it apart from other space films.
You hear every screw rattling and the rush of air flying by as the rocket ascends into the atmosphere. And then nothing. The absence of sound when they’re in space can be just as loud as the noise back down on Earth. You really get a sense of how gritty everything is and how much of an achievement it was getting to the moon. Early on in the film Kyle Chandler’s character draws on a chalkboard the earth and how far out previous space missions have gone with maybe an inch or so separating the two. Then he draws a line across the width of the entire chalkboard and halfway onto another with a circle labeled ‘moon.’ That was their goal. And getting them there were not some sleek and shiny new-age space shuttles of the future but what amounts to a metal coffin with a rocket attached. A million things could go wrong at any moment, and First Man shows that the trip to the moon wasn’t without some massive setbacks.
First Man is a biopic first and foremost so much of the film deals with Armstrong’s mindset as he sets out to make history. Ryan Gosling does a great job at showing a man who is hiding a lot of pain behind a seemingly normal facade. The death of Armstrong’s daughter Karen due to a brain tumor is the driving force behind the film. It’s what forces him to constantly put up this shield when in front of others, including his own family. One of the most memorable moments of the film comes when Armstrong is saying goodbye to his wife and two sons just before the Apollo 11 mission. Instead of an emotional and heartfelt scene you would expect, it’s woefully stoic as it mirrors a press conference he gave to reporters moments before.
As detached as Armstrong may be, the true rock of the film is Janet, who has to watch day after day as her husband leaves for work and may never return. Claire Foy is wonderful in the role, and you can see the heartbreak and frustration as she so desperately tries to connect with her husband who she loves dearly. These scenes at home are nowhere near as intense as the ones in space, but they’re an important addition to exploring who Neil Armstrong was outside of the mission he’s most known for.
Just as the moon landing was a spectacular feat for humankind, First Man is a spectacular achievement in filmmaking, especially when it comes to the cinematography and sound design of the space shuttle sequences. Every single one of those scene is amazing, and as impressive as the lunar landing is, it speaks wonders when it’s the third best space sequence in the film. Things slow down a bit when showing the relationship between Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, but Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy deliver strong and intimate performances. Once again, Damien Chazelle has exceeded expectations and created an awe-inspiring film that we will no doubt be discussing come awards season.