July 20, 1969: The day that America witnessed “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The day that NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two people to ever step foot on the moon. The day that not only changed the technological possibilities of space exploration, but also changed the world as we know it today.
Damien Chazelle, writer and director of 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2016’s “La La Land,” arguably two of the most highly acclaimed and influential films of the past decade, has set out to bring the Apollo 11 mission to life with “First Man,” as he reteams with his “La La Land” star Ryan Gosling and screenwriter Josh Singer (who co-wrote both last year’s “The Post” and the 2016 Oscars Best Picture winner “Spotlight”) in order to do so.
However, while Chazelle’s film obviously shows NASA’s understatedly strenuous journey from a space station in Houston, Texas to the lunar landscape orbiting Earth, it primarily chose to focus on Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his relationship with his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) and his children, one of whom, his daughter Karen, had sadly passed away in 1962, and the tension and anxiety that came with this world-changing event.
Chazelle specifically chose to shoot “First Man’ almost entirely in 16 and 35 mm (with exception of the third act’s moon landing sequence, which was shot using IMAX cameras) using a very handheld or “shaky-cam” style from beginning to end, and the result is some of the most awe-inspiring cinematography that I’ve seen in a while.
Chazelle’s cinematographer Linus Sandgren approaches every single shot from a very visceral angle, often using point of view (POV) shots to giving the audience the impression that are viewing current the scene or situation from Neil’s own perspective.
Especially during the many scenes that deal with Neil inside and piloting a rocket, Chazelle and Sandgren aimed to create a very up-close and nerve-racking viewing experience for the audience, pushing them to the edge of their seats when combined with the generally “unsteady” filmmaking techniques.
Both Gosling and Foy are phenomenal in their respective roles, as they portray Neil and Janet with a sense of emotional authenticity and passion. With an event as emotionally straining as being the first men to go to the moon, it is by no means easy for Janet to cope with the fact that she may not ever see her husband again, while Neil feels that this seemingly impossible mission is his personal goal to honor not only Karen, but the other astronauts of NASA who would end up perishing along the way.
Running at approximately two hours and twenty minutes, “First Man” can sometimes show its weaknesses within its pacing. Particularly within the film’s first and second act, the audience’s attention to what’s happening on-screen can often slow down, and that’s mainly due to the rather stoic characterization of Neil Armstrong.
Regardless of whether or not that was the case in real life, it is often hard for the audience to become as emotionally attached to Neil as they would have liked to. It’s not so much Gosling’s performance for why this is the case, but rather, the screenplay as a whole, and one can certainly argue that Chazelle and Singer simply tried to be as historically accurate as possible.
But with that being said, one scene, arguably the most emotionally powerful scene of the entire film, during the moon landing sequence that, upon further research afterwards, ultimately (and in my opinion, unfortunately) proves otherwise.
While arguably the most “conventional” of his three films, Chazelle’s “First Man” is a riveting drama that, not without its faults, succeeds in bringing this historic story to life. It certainly could be somewhat stronger, but with the material given, Chazelle and crew did the best job they possibly could when it came to showing what Neil Armstrong had to go through, emotionally speaking, during this time.
With Oscar season now having officially begun, “First Man” definitely deserves to be seen on the big screen (especially an IMAX screen), even if it’s not nearly as powerful as Chazelle’s previous two efforts.