I’ll be perfectly honest, the idea of a biopic being made about Neil Armstrong was not something I could so easily be sold on but of course expectations would have been made higher with the fact that Damien Chazelle would be set to direct. Following up on La La Land, Chazelle doesn’t solely focus only on the trip to the moon and back, but the journey right from Earth all about what it would have taken to ensure that the moon landing would be as perfect as it was. But in capturing the life-threatening journey that would have ensured the safety of one man in order to make a giant leap for mankind through as much as a small step on the moon, what Damien Chazelle has created in First Man celebrates how far humanity can go if they really strive to remain together to achieve something that would come to define history.
The film opens fittingly enough, with Neil Armstrong (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) launching himself into space and crash landing. It isn’t until later we see the sort of life that Armstrong lives at home, together with his wife (Claire Foy) and children, and his attempt to balance out this lifestyle with his job over at NASA. Of course, Armstrong’s ambitions are clear from the first moment onward, and Damien Chazelle captures in this biopic about the late astronaut on his journey to what led to the successful Apollo 11 mission, where he would eventually go on to become the first man to walk on the moon. It was obviously a defining moment for American history, but what Damien Chazelle seeks to show audiences through First Man is the way in which a dangerous mission would have united people together in order to achieve something thought to be impossible, even at the expense of Armstrong’s life at home.
When portraying Neil Armstrong, Ryan Gosling doesn’t only allow a distinctive charm to be recognized with this performance, but there’s a spirit that he embodies that already convinces you that he is born to play Armstrong. He feels born to play Armstrong in the very sense that he evokes a feeling of ambition that we can imagine that someone striving for the impossible would reach for. But Gosling’s portrayal is one that Chazelle presents to be something that feels like what one can relate to, because First Man doesn’t solely build this whole world to be that of Armstrong’s – and it feels even more reaffirming the moment you hear him recite the famous “One small step for man” quote. Claire Foy’s turn as Armstrong’s first wife Janet Shearon is an exceptional turn for her, not as if it were unexpected in any way from her, but every moment that she spends together with Gosling’s Armstrong adds a sense of emotional stakes when it mixes together with the NASA mission – thus allowing the journey to feel more humanistic as a whole.
Although coming back to speak of the ambitious spirit that Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong evokes, all of that still feels present in Damien Chazelle’s own direction. Being only the fourth feature film directed by Chazelle, what’s most outstanding about what he presents in First Man is a sense of command over the details that would make the film feel like you really are on the journey together with Armstrong. From how he allows sounds and the confined space in order to capture the feeling of danger that a mission where the odds are near impossible and could even cost the lives of many other people at NASA, Chazelle allows you to see everything right from their own eyes – from that fear to the very moment of awe, when Armstrong finally lands on the moon. As expected, the moon landing sequence is phenomenal to see in IMAX, and Chazelle never lets down with capturing how breathtaking the view is from there.
Everything about First Man that should also feel like it could easily have been any other Hollywood product, but Chazelle’s aspirations never let the film stay down to such a level. There are moments in First Man that could easily sink the film down there, but they are made to feel genuine because you know Chazelle truly wants you to see a side to this mission that many wouldn’t know first hand. Had this solely been a film about the success of the mission, then First Man would not find itself landing with a solid impact, and yet even before we finally reach the depths of outer space, Chazelle still makes these moments capture something bigger because we already know we can expect so much but these moments make that feel all the more meaningful. And this all doesn’t simply end with the landing on the moon, for even the return home still creates a solid impact – especially in as much as an interaction between Gosling and Foy. It should sound corny on the surface, but Chazelle makes it feel genuine.
First Man captures a near impossible journey without ever letting down on those stakes, one that already would go on to make history for all of humankind. But before making history, there comes a trial that could even cost the lives of many along the way and Damien Chazelle never holds back on showing all these dangers on the screen before we get our chance to revisit something that inspired nothing but a sense of awe and brought people together. Because without that unity between people, this was a mission that could never have become nearly as successful as it was. And without that ambition, it could also never have been conceited to begin with. Chazelle doesn’t see Neil Armstrong as being simply an American hero, but someone who made history for all mankind as we know it – and that’s what makes First Man all the more resonant.
Watch the trailer right here.
Images via Universal and TIFF.
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Screenplay by Josh Singer, from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen
Produced by Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 141 minutes