Courtesy of Universal Pictures
When Damien Chazelle won the Oscar for directing “La La Land” and turned heads with his stunning debut “Whiplash” - there was only one place to go, and that’s up. Ironically, he’s taken that sentiment quite literally, as the groundbreaking filmmaker with an eye for the flashy and glamour, soars to new heights in the first sure thing Oscar contender of the season: the race to space Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man.”
It’s easy to expect nominations for the breathtaking Cinematography by Linus Sandgren and one for Justin Hurwitz’s gorgeous sound design. And, while a slew of films are still on the horizon with a wide open field still at play, an early look all but locks in lead stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy for their tremendous performances.
Playing the first man himself Neil Armstrong, Gosling delivers a wholesomely real portrayal in the only way he knows how; continuing to drive projects that best suit his filmography: the last three years alone he turned in top rate work with “La La Land” and “Blade Runner 2049,” yet “First Man” is easily the actors most ambitious target to date.
Gosling, as Armstrong, is able to find the balance between a father struggling with his own woes, and an astronaut desperately trying to find answers. Thankfully, Chazelle masterfully pulls back the curtain on one of history's most iconic explorers. Yes, he was rewarded with being the first man to step foot on the moon, but with it came trial and error; frustration and anguish; and tremendous loss.
From the opening sequence, Chazelle hardly gives you time to breathe or gasp for air, when we’re thrusted to the year 1961 with a routine operation that runs amok quickly. Wedged inside a claustrophobic nightmare as a test pilot for an X-15 spacecraft over the Mojave dessert, Armstrong (Gosling) struggles to break free, and the audience (in the first five minutes) are left hanging. That’s only one of several dizzy and intoxicating moments thoughout the film, and like a rollercoaster strapping up for a quick whirl around the track, “First Man” delivers a visceral experience straight outta the gate.
Back at home, Armstrong is a father and husband to an adoring wife Janet (Foy - who is given such depth and is as fierce as a lion) while aspiring to reach for the stars. Their past is riddled with tragedy, and after the couples daughter dies from a brain tumor, they go searching for a fresh start.
Armstrong ends up in the Gemini program at NASA - the prelude to the eventual Apollo missions - where he befriends a solid group of intelligent engineers; Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke), Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham). Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). Together, they go through the tribulations of NASA's rigorous tests and procedures. Weeding out the finest candidates for the missions ahead.
Some outcomes you’ll know, while others might shock you. Once Neil and his family arrive in Houston (relocating as to avoid trauma from events prior) they move into a suburban utopia where everyone knows everyone. Chazelle expertly depicts these relationships blossoming in one finely staged scene after another; knowing full well not all of them will make it back to their families. All the actors make remarkable impressions. From Stroll conveying Aldrin’s cocky attitude, to Clark’s reading of White’s sharp mind (the closest Neil ever got to having a best friend) they build a lasting mold.
As “First Man” continues to expand on the timeframe in achieving total domination over the Soviets own space program, each new flight (or test) marks an attempt to do something beyond what those before did. The missions are all about engineers testing out their ships ability to orbit, then dock, then to release smaller ships into space. Which means, every flight carries a weight that can’t be replicated. Hence why each mistake and tragedy brings harsh burdens on those involved (for example the unforeseen electrical fire that killed three astronauts during pre flight testing on the first manned Apollo mission).
By the time the climatic moon mission comes to fruition, Chazelle has already played into Armstrong’s emotional psychosis. And when he’s forced to sit down and tell his kids about his forthcoming journey, it’s treated like a press conference; a Q and A session on the likelihood that daddy won’t come home. Gosling, in his stoic, but commanding presence, holds everything back despite secretly crying out for help. He’s not only matched by Foy’s stern Janet, but at times outshined by the mother who just wants a “normal life.”
Once Chazelle throws us into orbit, “First Man” plays the moon landing so matter of factly, that it makes films like “Apollo 13” look childish. And because we’re no strangers to the cinematic landscapes of the moon, Chazelle is smart enough to let it be deadpan and play it straight. Showing the fuzzy scope of the sandy particles on the ground, to an earth sized crater in the middle of the giant rock to yield mesmerizing results. This is as authentic a space flick as you could ask for.
Even more impressive that Chazelle - as a director - could make space look and feel like something completely different, speaks volumes to his adaptability as a filmmaker. At first, he often restricts the action to the point-of-view of the astronauts themselves and never wastes time with shots that aren’t necessary. This could be the quickest 135 minutes of the year.
Finally, as a geographical setting, “First Man” emulates the moon as a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a spooky remoteness hiding underneath. For a brief moment, when Armstrong takes his first steps, you don’t just see a man landing on the moon, you’re viewing Armstrong transitioning into a global hero.