Damien Chazelle proves himself to be one of the more versatile directors around, following Oscar-nominated hits like Whiplash and La La Land by tackling a completely different genre — outer space — and succeeding admirably in bringing the story of Apollo 11’s first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, to life in the appropriately titled First Man.
As I say in my video review above, this area is not new to Hollywood and has been favorably filmed with such Best Picture nominees as Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and Gravity. But this one stands out as the singular portrait of just one of those heroes featured in the previous films, and it seems a natural a movie would want to focus on one of the truly genuine pioneers of this or any other lifetime.
Based on the James R. Hansen book and adapted skillfully by Josh Singer, this movie doesn’t just wave its flag and put forward a jingoistic view of Armstrong’s historic 1969 flight and moon landing. It also intriguingly delves into all the decade-long politics of it since President John F. Kennedy announced at the beginning of the 1960s that America’s goal would be to land a man on the moon before the ’70s began. Singer’s screenplay doesn’t try to wash over anything, and even features a sequence set to Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon” set against pictures of black protesters left behind in poor, uncared-for neighborhoods while white males fly to the moon.
There has also been a recent brief political dust-up complaining that Chazelle failed to shoot the actual scene of Armstrong placing a flag on the moon as he set foot there. That protest failed to mention there are plenty of shots of the flag there, and Chazelle has said his reasoning was not to take away from the singular focus of Armstrong’s moment, as opposed to America’s, in that one shot. This is, after all, a movie called First Man.
There will be naysayers who say the film is not emotional enough, but that is also wrong. There is plenty of emotion, including a gut-wrenching scene when Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), forces him to have a dinner-table conversation with their two young sons to address the possibility that their father may never return from this never-before-attempted mission. Armstrong is a rather stoic, no-nonsense figure, but I found plenty of human emotion underneath the surface. The fact that his 3-year-old daughter died of a brain tumor is always there, perhaps, in some ways, driving him forward into uncharted territory.
Chazelle has made a sober film, but one that still has a beating heart. You can thank Ryan Gosling for never making a false moment in his single-minded portrait of this complex hero. I kept thinking of Gary Cooper in watching Gosling’s performance, an actor who never resorted to histrionics on screen but just became the man (often heroes) he was playing with welcome restraint and authenticity. Hopefully, Gosling’s achievement is not one that will be taken for granted. That also goes for Foy as Janet, fierce in supporting her husband but also aware he is not just an astronaut about to go to the moon, but also a husband and father who is very much of this planet.
Among the rest of the cast, Corey Stoll is right on as wild-card Buzz Aldrin, and Jason Clarke is effective as astronaut Ed White. Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds do yeoman work as NASA officials, and there are some nice moments as well with Olivia Hamilton as White’s wife.
The technical credits here are simply first-rate, with superb cinematography from La La Land Oscar winner Linus Sandgren and excellent editing from Whiplash Oscar winner Tom Cross. Chazelle keeps the music all in the family as well, with La La Land’s double Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz’s soaring symphonic score.
The Apollo 11 mission and moon landing was a major achievement in 1969. The movie that has been made about it, and specifically the First Man who guided it to glory, is a major achievement in its own right. Producers are Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner and Chazelle. Universal opens it Friday.
Do you plan to see First Man? Let us know what you think.