Quick Hit: Technically breathtaking, with an emotional story to match.
My father started collecting space memorabilia when I was roughly around 9 or 10 years old. Soon our dining room was filled with Life magazines commemorating the Space Race, and a bookshelf full of glasses, plates, and other collectibles filled one of the corners of our room. The moon landing, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this month, is something that captivated a whole generation, and also captivated a young boy through his father’s passion for the history of it. Space is still one of the great unknowns for humankind – we think that we know so much, but there is very little that we are sure of. Naturally, my father’s passion for space and my passion for movies overlapped when it came to Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a haunting portrait of Neil Armstrong as he prepares for his trip to become one of the most famous Americans in history.
Chazelle, who made two very different films that garnered Academy attention in Whiplash and La La Land, again stepped back onto the Academy’s radar with this story. First Man tells a very small story in a very large setting, in a similar tone to his two previous films. In the same way that Whiplash showed that musical greatness can come from the darkest of pushes, and La La Land turned a classic love story into a romance to acting, jazz, and the rush of falling in love, here Chazelle tells the story behind the story (excuse the cliché term, but it fits terrifically) of Armstrong as he dealt with the death of his daughter. This left him, a famously stoic man already, as a bit closed off emotionally, and fantastically driven to succeed. Ryan Gosling continues his stretch of terrific performances with Armstrong.
Really though, the performer who most holds the story together is Claire Foy. She manages to present a woman who is both fragile and terrifically strong. Janet Armstrong had to hold onto the fact that her husband was most likely going to die in space, after she had lost a child. Whereas Neil had something to throw himself into, Janet, as a 1960s woman, was not allowed the same courtesy. But she was strong and presented herself with grace and acumen, as shown here. One of her best lines is when she confronts the leaders of NASA because they have removed the feed of her husband in space. She states that they’re all just “boys making models of balsa wood”, which honestly feels spot on.
That leads me to my next point. Often times in the movies, space travel is presented as glorious, as fun, as awe-inspiring. And while it is most of those things, early space travel (and even now) was incredibly dangerous. The ships that we were building to push hundreds of pounds of rocket fuel into were not built to the same safety standards that you would expect, and were glorified tin cans that held people and a giant bomb to hurtle them. Chazelle, with devastating precision, shows us that, and, even better, lets us hear it. The shots of Armstrong and Aldrin in the lunar module and the Apollo are some of the most claustrophobic I’ve seen outside of something like The Descent. Space travel wasn’t a blast (pun unintended) – you were too afraid of all the things that could go wrong.
Overall, First Man is an amazing film that continues to highlight Damien Chazelle’s talents. I can only hope we continue to see more, and that he dives more into some of the stories that make us want to tap our shoes, dance around, and fly to the stars. I’m giving this one an “A-“.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"