First Man is the third film from director Damien Chazelle. His other films (La La Land, which was my number one favorite film of 2016, and Whiplash, one of my all-time favorite films) have been spectacular, which is why I had to rush out and see this film on its opening weekend.
When this film was announced last year, I was really curious as to how this story would be portrayed. I sort of wanted it to be a musical (since Chazelle’s other films are very music heavy), but instead what we’ve got is a semi-biopic about Neil Armstrong. I say “semi-biopic” because it doesn’t necessarily follow the life of Armstrong, but instead, it focuses on his perspective of the events that led him and Buzz Aldrin to be the first men on the moon. This style works very well with this film.
Although we spend the entirety of the movie with Armstrong, his character is portrayed almost as a mystery. The film is in his perspective, but there is so much that we end up not knowing about. We start the film in 1961, where Armstrong is both a pilot and a grieving father. We don’t see his childhood, the birth of his children, his marriage, anything. We start where it is important for the story, and end where it’s important for the story. The movie is constantly moving forward in time, months at a time, because it knows to cut the unnecessary fat, and just tell how he got to be the first man on the moon.
Ryan Gosling is giving a powerhouse performance here. He has recently become one of my favorite actors, with films like La La Land, and The Nice Guys. The film depends on his performance, and he delivers. Gosling gives a very “facial” performance. Armstrong is not the talkative type, so Gosling uses his face as the gateway into his mind. You may say that Gosling just does a very stern, straight face throughout the film, but I would argue that you can see all of the sadness and depression that Armstrong really suffered with.
This film is definitely not a pleasant watch. After walking out, I claimed that this movie was the most depressing movie I’d ever seen (a title previously held by Manchester by the Sea). I never realized how sad, and isolated Armstrong was until I watched this. The film shows all of the different tests, each labeled “Gemini”, that NASA ran that led to the Apollo 11 mission. Many, many astronauts and scientists died during the testing process, most of which were Neil’s close friends. With each loss, you see them affect him in some way. Gosling’s character goes through so much pain, and suffering, that by the end of the movie, the most amazing journey in the world seems to give him no personal joy. You never once see him smile while on the moon. To him, it was just a mission.
Visually, the film is stunning. The abundance of the color blue in the film fits extremely well with its tone. The camera work in this movie is extremely fitting and works to its story. A lot of shots in this film are done handheld, this makes scenes feel more personal and up close. This shooting style could also be interpreted as a negative, because there are a lot of very shaky scenes in airplanes and rockets. If looking at extreme shakiness is something that makes you feel uneasy, maybe close your eyes during those scenes.
Not to spoil anything, but when Neil ends up on the moon, I was almost moved to tears at the beauty of the scene. That scene enhanced the movie for me by elevating it from being a good film, to a great film. It was worth the price of the ticket for that scene alone, and it made me want to go see the film again, but in IMAX. If you can, I would recommend seeing it in that format.
If you are not a fan of slower-paced, quieter, films, then First Man is not the movie for you. If you want to watch another realistic, modern space movie, then I would recommend watching 2013’s Gravity with Sandra Bullock, or 2015’s The Martian with Matt Damon.
This film is a breathtaking look at the tribulations and struggles that scientific developments can have. Fans of space, Ryan Gosling, and biopics, then you will not be disappointed. If you want a good character piece, wherein you see the raw look at a person struggling with depression who is trying to push through this difficulty, then you should definitely go out of your way to see this.