by Kevin Muller
From the halls of renowned musical school to the hills of Hollywood, Academy Award winning director, Damien Chazelle, who still is the youngest director to win the award, has a love affair with ambition and what it takes to be the best. Andrew, from Whiplash, and Mia and Sebastian, from La La Land, sacrificed their wants and needs in order to attain their dreams. This time, the stakes are a bit higher. This life or death mission to space shows the many lives lost from countless failures to one of America’s proudest moments. Does Chazelle pull it off?
Once again, his leading man from La La Land, Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong. The Space Race is on and the American people are determined to beat the Russians to the moon. Armstrong is tapped to research all the possible ways to achieve this dream. While formulating the ideas of constructing a safe and viable way of getting up there, he is also dealing with the personal tragedy of losing his very young daughter to sickness. It isn’t a trait that is forced down our throats, but one that pops up every now and then. Armstrong is too determined to let it over take him. Of course, you know the ending of the film, but this is the story of how that all happened. Even though most are familiar with the basic story of the space race, this film really gets into the nitty gritty.
Chazelle does not shy away from many of the tragic aspects of the story. Not only were there many failures of the technical sort, but a lot more lives were lost than you can imagine due to the failed trials and mishaps. It adds an extra layer of emotion to a story that is pretty straight forward. Not that this is bad thing, since it would be disrespectful to add any unnecessary drama to one of America’s proudest moments. Chazelle’s over the top direction is something this story needed to keep the audiences engaged. The entire movie is trial and error, with discussions about formulas and other scientific talk. The beginning of the film thrusts us right into the action, with Armstrong flying, full speed, across the sky, imagining what lies ahead of Earth’s atmosphere. As with many of the scenes in the film, the scene has a constrictive feel to it. Many films about the travels to space have space shuttles that are grand and roomy in size. One really great thing about this film is the realistic portrayals of the machinery these scientists used to accomplish this mission. It has been said that the level of technology that was used is reminiscent to a simple calculator. Chazelle makes it feel real and authentic. Though his direction isn’t in your face or over the top, like it was in his first two films, it is attention to detail that makes him go three for three.
The film is over two hours and does have the pace of the long flight to the moon. Gosling is fine as Armstrong, conveying a stoic nature when he isn’t thinking about his daughter. The real stand out here is from Netflix’s The Crown and future Elisabeth Salander Claire Foy. She is as conflicted with the death of her child, as Armstrong is, but while he has his work to disappear into, she serves as a housewife. She, along with her husband, experience more loss of life with the death of Neil’s colleagues, and it does take a toll on her, especially when her husband takes the journey into space. Foy, who is British, tackles an American accent well, but the heart of the performance is the love she has for her husband. There is a terrific scene where she makes Neil confront the possibility he may not come home by telling his young sons this very fact. It is an intense scene that brings out the best in both actors.
First Man is a respectful tribute to one of America’s greatest minds. The landing on the moon, done in IMAX, is beautiful, subtle, and a perfect climax, not only to America’s urgency to win, but Neil’s sacrifices to his professional and personal life. There has been controversy about the film not showing the flag being planted into the moon. This one moment is minuscule to the journey these men went through the make their mark in history. A flag not being planted doesn’t take away from it at all. It is a film that takes its time to get where it’s going, but in the end, it is worth the journey.
I am giving First Man a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!