By: Dakota Gordon
If one is asked to explain some of the most significant events in American history, anyone around during the late ‘60s would probably tell you that sending three men to the moon was definitely in the top three. Born in ‘93, I only knew about the moon landing from history books, with names like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin circling my memory banks just from repetition, rather than any sort of nationalistic pride.
When movie director Damien Chazelle, notable for academy-award nominee La La Land and Whiplash, announced he would be working on a Neil Armstrong biopic, my expectations were somewhat low. The idea of filming the moon landing was an interesting challenge, but I wasn’t personally familiar with Armstrong or his personal life to care too much about seeing it. When the time came to pick a film to review and I noted all the great reviews, I decided to pay my guy Chazelle another visit.
If one isn’t familiar with Neil Armstrong as a person, watching First Man will be one giant leap in the right direction. While I have no confirmation as to how accurate the depiction is, it does everything it can to make it seem as real as possible, with an effective emotional grip surrounding the pressures of space exploration and raising a family on top of it.
The purpose of First Man seems to be shedding light on Armstrong as a person, with the focus on space exploration and training taking somewhat of a backseat. It is rather surprising, considering how long the film is (roughly 140 minutes), that anything space-related takes up only a modest chunk of it. Chazelle has made the conscious decision that Armstrong is the focus and his human soul is far more intriguing a focus than his space training and development as an astronaut; for those wanting more of a “bio” than a “pic,” this is the perfect situation.
As with many biopics, the level of complexity present in the more practical approach to exploring the mind of a person can ring somewhat hollow for veteran movie watchers. The pressures of being a hero, supporting a space program that eats up taxpayer dollars like shredders, the dangers of the job, and the balance of the workplace and the home are all familiar territories that the writer and director can only hope to make appear more impressive through cinematography and acting. I can fortunately say that there is some prominent effort into making this feel like a genuine, emotionally-captivating experience, but I also feel it’s a step down from Chazelle’s previous work. Part of this may be from the semi-formulaic presentation of Armstrong’s home life, with scenes I found less engrossing than when it focused on Armstrong’s lonely, more sullen moments or partaking in space trainings/activities.
On the acting front, Ryan Gosling has shown in many prior films that he’s a very talented actor. With the spotlight here, he once again delivers a performance I find to be good, but perhaps not great. His best moment was near the very beginning, where Armstrong breaks down and starts crying alone in a dark room. It was the closest I had come to breaking down myself, enveloped by Gosling’s realistic depiction of an unbecoming moment. Aside from Claire Foy, who plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet, there isn’t anyone else I would even consider noteworthy from an acting perspective. People do their jobs, while Gosling and Foy carry the load with the scenes in which they’re directly involved.
The score to the film is definitely noteworthy—predictable from Chazelle’s previous works. Many times (especially with treks into space) the feeling of something grand is better emphasized with a full orchestra blaring in the background, highlighting the cultural and human achievement of the events unfolding. Though not only subliminal, some emotional scores are poured into the forefront to better characterize the tensile feelings surrounding the Armstrong household and those within his world.
From a visual lens, there’s a certain something about the type of film that makes the film feel delectably retro. It’s grainy, old-fashioned film that presents the pragmatic life of the 1960s in a nostalgic characteristic. No, the film isn’t in black and white and super patchy, but there’s an archaic, sand-like quality that covers the film in a thin sheet. The only times when this is removed: in outer space, showing the clear, beautiful imagery of the distant Earth in all its glory. Phenomenal.
First Man may not be Academy-award worthy, but it’s something that creates a human side to the oft-mentioned American hero in the picture books that fill elementary schools. That human development is what makes the film so gripping, as well as the romanticization of space travel. A good portion of the film is familiar, providing little new from what’s been done with biopics in the past. Nevertheless, the extra emphasis on the power of human achievement will make this one to remember.
Final Score: 7.5/10