REVIEW: First Man (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – Universal Pictures

The following is a review of First Man — Directed by Damien Chazelle.

Do kids still dream of becoming astronauts? — That is one of the many things I thought of after I saw First Man — the latest film from Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench; Whiplash; La La Land). When I was a kid I remember I sometimes would play and try to jump in slow motion, because I imagined that would be what it would be like to jump on the moon.

Being in space always seemed so cool to me, and I do wonder if kids think of that anymore, or if the wonders of the internet, the limitless potential of entertainment technology, and so on and so forth, has made the dream of being an astronaut so uninteresting.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people younger than me say that space research and exploration is unimportant nowadays. I’m not sure the astronaut dream would’ve been so attractive to me, if I had seen the intimate, mature, and, frankly, at times scary First Man when I was young.

Chazelle hasn’t just made space exploration frightening again, with First Man he has reminded us how impressive of an achievement space exploration is. This film may not make kids dream of becoming astronauts, but parents will probably never think of the Apollo 11 lunar mission the same way again.

Damien Chazelle’s First Man is based on James R. Hansen’s book of the same name — the official biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong — and the film takes us from Neil Armstrong’s experience as a test pilot for the North American X-15 aircraft, with which he bounced off the atmosphere, up until Neil (played by Ryan Gosling), Buzz Aldrin (played by Corey Stoll), and Michael Collins (played by Lukas Haas) returned to Earth after they completed their Apollo 11 mission.

The story, in case the title didn’t reveal it to you, is about the first man on the moon. This is very much a film about Neil Armstrong and not a film about Apollo 11 or NASA, and you should know that going in to see the movie. Because a large part of the film is really a family drama about a closed-off husband, Neil, and his wife, Janet (played by Claire Foy), who is desperate to get through to her man, who she loves and who their sons need.

The film’s opening scenes illustrate the film’s interest in both his dangerous and ambitious job, which he turns all of his focus to when things go wrong at home, and his earthly daily life, in which, as Janet says later in the film, the family has gotten used to attending funerals. The emotional core of the film is a story about a man ‘leaping out into the unknown’ to heal himself and leave the broken part of him somewhere far from home.

Here you will get to see a film that is both about ambition but also about personal and American sacrifices. Do not let the fabricated controversy fool you, the American flag is present in the film, the film just isn’t so much about the achievement as it is about Neil’s journey.

Howard Hawks supposedly once remarked that a good film has three great scenes but no bad ones. I remember once reading a Vulture-interview with Damien Chazelle, in which he said that he thought you need a brilliant beginning, a brilliant ending, and then nothing bad in between to make a good movie. First Man fits both principles quite well. There are three brilliant scenes in space where we, in spite of the ending being obvious for anyone not born yesterday, at times feel like things are going to end wrong for our leading man: the X-15 test, the Gemini 8-sequence, and, then, the moon landing sequence.

As for Chazelle’s principle, yes, both the opening and ending scenes are brilliant. The opening sequence is a terrifying showstopper that takes your breath away, and the final scene is an intimate moment in which you have one character searching for a very specific response from another. The bookending scenes are terrific, and the aforementioned three great scenes are tense, claustrophobic, and phenomenal, and, though the film has some problems, I do not think that the film has any noticeable bad scenes.

But let us now talk about its issues. Though the film builds to a strong crescendo that will surely win over the harshest audience members, I am sure some audiences will find the film to be too emotionally reserved to really have the, literally, down-to-earth scenes work as intended. I thought it worked for the film and that it, indeed, made sense, but I can see a point where audiences may frown disapprovingly.

Also, the cast of actors for First Man is an embarrassment of riches for director Damien Chazelle to use, but the structure of the story and the dialogue doesn’t allow for them to be given a substantial number of scenes that flesh out their characters, which is a shame because I did want a stronger grasp of the supporting characters. Jason Clarke gets perhaps the most sizeable amount of screen-time outside of Gosling and Foy, but he doesn’t make a strong impression other than for what his character and his character’s wife represent.

But those were, to me, minor issues for a film that I found to be breathtaking, claustrophobic, and deeply moving when the film decided to strike you in the gut. Chazelle is helped by a team that he has become familiar with. The Swede Linus Sandgren, who Chazelle worked with on La La Land, is back as the director of photography, Tom Cross, who Chazelle has worked with ever since Whiplash, is back as the film editor, and Chazelle’s former roommate Justin Hurwitz, who Chazelle has worked with his entire career, is back as his composer.

I’m sure the list of frequent collaborators behind the scenes go on and on, but those names — Sandgren, Cross, and, especially, Hurwitz — are the ones that will likely once again receive both critical praise and awards attention. And for good reason, First Man doesn’t look like anything Chazelle has ever done before, the film runs smoothly in spite of the many years it covers, and the film’s score is a thing of beauty that I cannot get out of my mind.

Though I’ll talk about the two central performances in a moment, and even though Chazelle deserves a lot of praise for the film, I thought Justin Hurwitz was the real shining star for First Man. Hurwitz is the secret ingredient that holds and binds it all together — both the family drama and the astronaut action.

There are compositions on the score that ratcheted the tension up after a waltz-like theme had lulled you into a false sense of security during space exploration. He handles the moon landing with a majestic and triumphant theme that is sure to stick in the minds of audiences as they leave the theater, but he also, time and time again, returns to a ghostlike or otherworldly theremin sound that is spellbinding. Composer Justin Hurwitz’s score for First Man is a stunning masterwork that has me obsessed.

Claire Foy’s character decidedly grounds the film, and though she plays a conventional character — the astronaut’s wife — I thought she did much more with the part than many expect from such a role. She has two or three commanding scenes that are sure to show up at various award shows. Though it must be said that the film doesn’t ask for much from her.

Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, has to work or else the film falls apart. Gosling, not unlike in Drive or Blade Runner 2049, gives a reserved, stoic, and unflinching performance. You, as an audience member, will find yourself searching through his expressions to get glimpses into the thought-process of a broken man that is trying to keep his composure.

Gosling’s Armstrong is so closed-off that he speaks to his children like he also speaks to journalists — with a disinterest and a formality that is unbecoming of a hot-head astronaut, something that Buzz Aldrin embodies better. Although his performance is unlikely to be showy enough to spellbind the biggest awards academies, Gosling gives a strong performance that is reportedly true to the person that he is portraying for all to see. And when Chazelle decides to give you an emotional gut-punch, what Gosling has been working with shines much brighter than ever before.

First Man is a character study disguised as a by-the-numbers space exploration mission retelling. And if you are just interested in the space exploration, then those scenes alone are worth the price of admission — they are claustrophobic, captivating, and terrifying (the impeccable sound and production designs help to make the film feel authentic, which also means that it feels like the characters are vulnerable whenever they sit in a spacecraft) — but the film is so much more than just those scenes. The film’s emotional journey is haunting and devastating. Damien Chazelle has done it again. First Man is a technical achievement and one of the best films of the year.

9.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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