In 2016, director Damien Chazelle won Best Director for La La Land (and famously did not win Best Picture,) and two years later, he returns for a film that is decidedly outside of his comfort zone. La La Land and 2014’s Whiplash are both dramas centered around musicians and the sacrifices one makes in service of their dream, whatever that may be. His new film shares similar themes but isn’t about music. First Man is a biopic of famed astronaut and first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Chazelle has brought back largely the same creative team from his other films, and of course, is strategically placed right in the middle of Oscar season. How does it stack up to his other work?
First Man follows NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, which lasted from 1961-1969, ending in the infamous Apollo 11. We also focus largely on the life and family of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy.) It focuses on the sacrifices he made in pursuit of this larger goal and the resulting strained relationship with his family.
This is one of the most cynically packaged ‘Oscar-movies’ I’ve ever seen, but that’s not to say it isn’t good. It’s proficient on just about every level. It’s shot beautifully – on 35mm as opposed to digital, a rarity these days. It’s scored masterfully and thoughtfully performed and written. It’s also a bit too long and can feel like a real chore from time to time. You can tell when the movie is giving you a big, showy awards-season moment. Gosling and Foy both have scenes that you picture being played in their ‘for your consideration’ reel at the Oscars.
The characterization of Neil Armstrong doesn’t really introduce anything about him that hasn’t been written over the last fifty years. He was a man of few words, and he was hard to read. Unfortunately, for a film that follows this character exclusively, the narrative itself can feel distant and uninvolving. Gosling is giving the restrained and nuanced performance required of him. It’s difficult to emotionally connect with Armstrong, because he’s so closed off to others around him, and it’s almost as if this movie doesn’t want to let its own audience in. However, Gosling is still good enough to make this character journey one worth following.
Claire Foy, however, is the emotional core of this story – a true example of “behind every great man, there’s a woman.” She’s also nuanced and subtle, but big and brash when she has to be. Even though we see the story from Neil’s point of view, she’s never too far out of frame, and she and Chazelle are doing a lot of work to keep this from feeling like the stereotypical wife character. Foy is an actress who has picked interesting parts since her breakout performance in Netflix’s The Crown, and I look forward to what she does next.
Chazelle directs this in bleak, stark tones. In the same way that La La Land was lush, beautiful and vibrant, this is beautiful in a darker, vastly different way. The opening scene and at least three other points in this film, especially the stuff on the moon, are absolutely breathtaking to behold. If the entire film were like that, this would be winning everything this year.
However, it’s restrained to a fault and it’s very difficult to connect emotionally to this story. This is a two and a half hour long film that feels that long. It’s beautifully shot and produced, but can feel like a chore to sit through. However, First Man still does enough right to warrant a recommendation.