Damien Chazelle’s newest film is a biopic of Neil Armstrong and his treacherous journey to the moon. But the story encapsulates so much more than just the famous Apollo 11 launch.
The film was adapted from James R. Hansen’s 2005 autobiography and written for the screen by Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight), so it doesn’t really matter that Chazelle’s 3rd feature (Whiplash, La La Land) wasn’t written by him. Going into it, I thought First Man would be a mimic of Gravity in that it would include mostly CGI eye candy. Although I was very wrong; the movie explores Armstrong’s life back on earth and how it affected his endeavors in space. In fact, the movie begins in 1961, about 7 years before Apollo 11, and in that period, the audience gets to experience the grief and adversity that plagued Armstrong and his family. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling’s performance was a little underwhelming because he played the same moody, apathetic, character that he always seems to play. Nonetheless, he is still a high-tier actor and the role was relatively memorable. I was particularly impressed with Claire Foy’s (The Crown) portrayal of Armstrong’s wife, Janet. Throughout the entire film, she perfectly expresses the amount of angst Mrs. Armstrong evidently felt while her husband risked his life in the eight or so NASA missions he embarked in.
Movies like Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey, are notorious for their grand shots featuring immaculately constructed models of spacecrafts floating through the mysterious vacuum of space. However, in First Man, the vast majority of shots take place inside the spacecrafts’ cockpits. Also, it should be noted that Chazelle only increased the size of the cockpits by a maximum amount of 10%. The result: claustrophobia. I think the overall goal of this movie was to put the audience in the shoes of these astronauts and the fact that we only see what they saw is clever (and risky). Another plus of First Man is that it was shot multiformat, which is something that we don’t really get to see anymore. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land), shot on super 16, super 35, and glorious 70mm. The different use of the formats perfectly capture the mood of what’s going on; the soft, almost impressionistic, 16mm is used in intimate scenes at Armstrong’s rural home, while the sharper 35mm and 70mm stocks are used in NASA-related sequences. The cinematography is absolutely incredible during the landing scene on the moon. If you can, see this movie in IMAX because the sound design and slightly larger aspect ratio is definitely worth the extra few dollars.
Damien Chazelle is emerging as one of the best directors in Hollywood (at just 33) and it seems that he’s developed a roster of talent with Ryan Gosling, Sandgren, and Justin Hurwitz, the guy responsible for La La Land’s incredible score. I’m very excited to see what these artists will do in the future.