First Man (2018) Review
AN EPIC AND INTIMATE
While film director Damien Chazelle drew critical praise (and awards) for his 2014 sophomore movie Whiplash, he took the cinematic film world by storm in 2016, with the release of La La Land, a musical feature that was similar to the old classic Hollywood musical of yesteryear. The film, which starred actor Ryan Gosling and actress Emma Stone in the lead roles, saw the characters of a jazz pianist and aspiring actress who meet and fall in love in Los Angeles while pursing their individual dreams. La La Land went on to receive widely positive acclaim from both critics and moviegoers, with many praising the feature for Gosling and Stone’s performance, its musical numbers, the film’s score (done by composer Justin Hurwitz), and the film’s cinematography as well as the film’s overall look and appeal of being a throwback musical to Old Hollywood. Additionally, the movie scored big at the box office, garnishing roughly $446 million worldwide against its $40 million production budget. Furthermore, Chazelle’s La La Land scored 14 nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, winning Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song (i.e. City of Stars). Now, after coming off of the rousing success of La La Land, Universal Pictures and director Damien Chazelle journey into the space and present the story of famed astronaut Neil Armstrong with the movie First Man. Does Chazelle’s fourth film aim for the stars or does it simply get crash and burn?
During the 1960s, America is in middle of the “space race” with the Soviet Union, frustratingly falling behind their country’s rivals in several areas. Desiring to surpass Russia in the race, NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) spearheads a new mission that will see the organization travel from Earth to the moon. However, to complete this very daring and complicated process of landing on the lunar surface, the program recruits several pilots and astronauts, including civilian Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who immediately starts to work on the task at hand. Since the undertaking of this dangerous mission has never been attempted before, it requires NASA to tirelessly perfect several innovations (i.e. the Gemini missions) in order to make sure their space crafts are safe and effectively operational in transporting and landing on the moon. As a result, Armstrong dedicates himself to his job, while (at the same time), he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are still trying to raise a family as well as still grieving over the aftermath of a terrible personal tragedy. With outside pressure from the government, costly setback failures, and protestors beginning to form, Armstrong and his team gear up to make the necessary steps to be the first to the moon, while Janet refuses to submit to her husband’s silence; forcing him to confront the grief he wants to hide from.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Being an amateur film buff and aspiring movie critic, I remember seeing Chazelle’s 2014 Whiplash and found it to be interesting. It was definitely quite an interesting feature and the film’s two main performances (actor Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons) were excellent, I just didn’t think it was superbly awesome. Personally, I didn’t think it was “Best Picture” material, but that’s just me (I wanted either The Theory of Everything or American Sniper to win in that category). That being said, I was really quite taking by Chazelle’s next feature film La La Land. Like many out there, I was quite enchanted by the 2016, finding it to be quite a whimsical musical endeavor that today’s current Hollywood hasn’t done in quite some time. I mean from the two leads (I think Gosling was a bit better than Stone, but I love the two of them together in the movie), the singing, the dancing, all the colorful set pieces, and the film’s overall storyline of following your dreams even if you might have to give up a thing or two to achieve. In truth, La La Land was one of those movies that was definitely worth the hype (at least to me) and was the film I was definitely “rooting for” during the 89th Academy Award. Although, while I agree with most of the categories that the film done in, I still don’t think that the film’s “City of Stars” was that great and didn’t deserve to win the Best Original Song category (I personally liked “Another Day in the Sun” or “Someone in the Crowd” was better). Still, Chazelle’s La La Land was definitely a film that had that “old Hollywood magic” running through its cinematic veins.
As one might expect, this brings me back to talking about the movie First Man, a biographical drama motion picture on Neil Armstrong and his journey to get to the moon. I first heard about this move a few weeks after the 2017 award season, the articles and movie “buzz information” appearing online about Damien Chazelle’s next movie would be a bio-drama feature on Armstrong and that actor Ryan Gosling was attached to the film in the lead role. Given the fact how much I liked La La Land (and his direction worked in the film’s favor), I was definitely curious to see how Chazelle would handle a film like this, especially on how different the two are to each other (i.e. one being an old Hollywood musical, while the other is a bio-drama on the now famous astronaut). After that, I didn’t hear much talk about this until I saw the film’s trailer a few months back, which I then continued to see several times when I went out to weekly theater outings). Judging from the trailer (of which I forgot to post on my blog…sorry about that), the movie looked to be a promising endeavor; something that I would consider to be an “Oscar contender” type film. Still, I was still pretty intrigued to see it and hearing / reading about some of what my fellow movie bloggers said about it (some went to Toronto Film Festival in September of which an advance screening was held there for it), I was definitely excited to go see this movie. So, I went to see it with one of my friends from work and hoping to see if First Man lived up to its own hype. Did it? Well, it actually did. Despite some minor flaws I found with the film, First Man is a very epic and intimate bio-pic drama feature that soars high due to Chazelle’s directing, several cinematic flourishes in its presentation, and all-around solid performances from its recognizable cast. While some might have been turned off by the whimsical La La Land, this is one movie that’s definitely worth the hype and is worth checking out.
With Chazelle directing First Man, the young Hollywood director seizes an opportunity to take his craft from what he learned from Whiplash and La La Land and translate that onto a large canvas. To that effect, Chazelle succeeds, bringing to life (under a cinematic lens) the story of Neil Armstrong and his various challenges that he overcomes (both personal and physical ones) in order to get to lunar surface of the moon. While La La Land was more of a whimsical theatrical feature of flashy colors and catchy musical numbers, First Man is much more of a “grounded” drama as well being a “large scope” motion picture, finding Chazelle fully capable on tackling such an endeavor with grandiose flair (not so much blockbuster blustery fanfare, but rather cinematic scope) as well as smaller and more intimate character drama moments. Speaking to that notion, Chazelle overall direction of the feature is also quite impressive (again…especially when comparing this movie to La La Land); making the First Man an engaging movie by lacing tension / dramatic moments that juxtapose the film’s more quieter moments, which are, more or less, delegated towards character-building moments. Also, there are a few times that Chazelle takes a more “different” approach in framing the film’s story, which makes the movie (i.e creative camera angles, close-ups, etc.), which does set the movie apart from similar space flight dramas that have come before. All in all, Chazelle’s directorial efforts in First Man are top-notch, displaying the right amount of epic grandiose (something befitting a cinematic take on Armstrong tale of getting to the moon) as well as being a private look into Armstrong family household.
One of the great achievements that First Man excels in is in its technical presentation, which is pretty fantastic and definitely does add plenty of cinematic layers to help strengthen the movie. As one would expect, the film’s cinematographer (Linus Sandgren), who was also the cinematographer for La La Land, does some impressive work on the film; working closely with Chazelle’s ultimate vision of the film by capturing some fantastic camera shots of facial close-ups (showing facial expression to evoke dramatic emotions), wide-angle shots for the scenes that require a sense of size and scope, and some interesting close-quarters sequences (i.e. the scene when the Gemini 8 launches) that definitely add to the film’s tension. However, the true star of First Man’s technical achievement is found within its sound editing / sound mixing department, which really do add to the whole “cinematic” take of First Man’s journey. Every sound bite of gears turning, metal creaking, and rockets roaring are played with such intensity that it played an instrumental part of the film’s overall makeup (much like it did with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). Thus, I really have to give “big props” to the entire sound department that worked on the film. Definitely hoping that their efforts get noticed at the upcoming award season.
Other areas that are worth noting include production designs by Nathan Crowley, set decorations by Randi Hokett and Kathy Lucas, and costume designs by Mary Zophres, which certainly add a layer of filmmaking quality by making the film’s various background / set pieces appropriate and pleasing to look at (when displayed on-screen). Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Justin Hurwtiz, is top notch. While the score itself isn’t as melodically “bombastic” throughout (Hurwitz has a lot of softer / simpler pieces to “soak up” the film’s emotion or dialogue scenes), there are a few selections from his score that are truly fantastic, especially the sequences during much of the Apollo 11 mission. Won’t spoil them, but they were definitely so cool to listen to and definitely added the extra movie soundtrack “oomph”.
There are a few problems that I had with the movie, which made First Man just out of reach from being an unscathed “grand slam” spaceflight drama feature. The most problematic one is the film’s pacing / story structure. With the movie running around 138 minutes (two hours and eighteen minutes), the movie certainly does feel long, with some sporadic movements as the narrative jumps from one time period to the next, which make the movie feel “choppy” at times. Additionally, there are a few scenes that do drag a bit and could’ve been shortened to reduce the very elongated runtime and “tighten” the final cut of the feature (I think the movie could’ve been told in roughly two hours and still be an effective and engaging narrative to tell).
Coinciding with that problem was the actually narrative structure of the film’s story / plot. Spanning from 1961 to 1969, the movie has a lot of “ground to cover”, showcasing a variety of sequences that show Neil Armstrong’s journey that he must overcome and face throughout the course of the film’s runtime; naturally leading up to his “landing on the moon” during the events of Apollo 11. Of course, this is all worked into the film’s script and, while it is insightful to see all of this play out on-screen (especially in helping understand Neil’s personal life and his goals to get to the Apollo 11 mission), it comes off as the film’s narrative bites off mark than it can chew. There’s a lot of stuff that’s sort of “crammed” into the movie and, while its kind of easy to follow, I just wished they could’ve have fleshed out some parts or simply streamlined it a bit more. However, given the nature of the film’s story, I don’t think that the format structure chosen could’ve have worked any other way. So, I guess it’s a “give and take” in the film. Because of this, many of the supporting players in First Man are not exactly well-rounded, but I’ll take more about that below.
As some readers already know (from some of the social media outlets around the internet), First Man has come somewhat “under fire” for the controversy, including lacking “American Patriotism” in the film (considered to be a reflection of the “division” of the modern political ultimate) as well as the absence of Armstrong “planting” the American Flag. Personally, the “controversy” aspect doesn’t really bother me as First Man (given my impression of the feature) is more about Neil’s journey (albeit a cinematic one) than more so on the political affairs of the “space race” of the US against Russia. Of course, the struggles and opposition of the space program is mentioned in the movie, but I assume it wasn’t enough for some, which is why I also assume the film is being criticized. Still, it didn’t bother me and didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the movie. As for the absence of Armstrong “planting” of the American Flag, I kind wished it made into First Man. Not so much for the political reasons that some are making it out to be, but more for a cinematic reason as it would’ve quite interesting to see on-screen (it real is an iconic scene). Again (for the reason he gave), I understand why Chazelle didn’t decided to show that particular scene, but I kind of wished he did. Again, I have to mention that it didn’t necessarily bother me and didn’t take away from me enjoying the film.
Also, before I forget, I thought that the film’s ending scene was bit “meh”. I know what Chazelle was trying to achieve by ending the film on that particular note, but I felt like the movie could’ve ended on a little bit of a better scene than what was shot. It’s not terrible, but it’s just not my cinematic personal taste on the matter.
The cast in First Man is a diverse one, with many (and I do mean many) familiar / recognizable faces of actors (and actresses) that plays many of the films cast of characters in both major and minor roles. Leading the charge is actor Ryan Gosling, who plays the film’s main protagonist character of Neil Armstrong. Known for his roles in The Notebook, Blade Runner 2049, and La La Land, gives a very strong yet almost understated performance in the role of the now-famous astronaut Neil Armstrong as a very focused and introverted man, who is haunted by his past as well as achieving his desire for space flight to the moon. Some might find that Gosling is rather cold and distant in the movie, but the character personality that he (as an actor) emulates in the movie is an actual and accurate depiction of the real-life Neil Armstrong, who was (from reports and those who knew him personally) was very much like that in First Man. To his credit, Gosling succeeds on that endeavor, handling the cinematic iteration of Neil Armstrong in a similar way that he did with “K” in Blade Runner 2049 (i.e. playing the role with subtlety and never “over-acting” in any way, shape, or form). Even still, Gosling’s minimal facial expression also sell his performance as well as displaying a few moments of “humanity” that does make the character feel more well-rounded than what one would imagine from such a reserved / withdrawn persona. All in all, while other actors might have tried to imbue a bit more theatrical zest and zip into the character, Gosling’s subtitle definitely sells in portrayal of Neil Armstrong, which gives First Man’s a very solid and favorable main character protagonist. Probably assume he might get a few “nominations” during the upcoming awards season for this role….and for good reason.
Behind Gosling, the other “big ticketed” star of the feature would have to be actress Claire Foy, who plays the role of Armstrong’s wife Janet Armstrong. Known for her roles in The Crown, Wolf Hall, and Little Dorritt, Foy delivers a fine performance in the movie; making Janet a very strong-willed / caring wife for Neil. The character does kind-of-sort-of have that classic role of being the central “rock” wife to a husband, which certainly does work for what the film calls for in Janey Armstrong, Foy’s acting skills are solid in the movie as she turns a memorable role. She may have the less screen time than Gosling’s Neil (when comparing side to side), but Foy’s Janet showcases the more private life of the Armstrong; never shying away from put her husband in his place or standing up for what she believes in.
The only character I was slightly disappointed with was Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon alongside Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11, who is played actor Corey Stoll. To me, it’s not so much that I’m disappointed with Stoll’s performance, who is known for his roles in House of Cards, Ant-Man, and The Strain, but rather on how limited he’s in the movie, despite being just as famous as Armstrong for walking on the moon. I do understand that the movie is more about Neil (since he is the primary focus of the feature), but think they could’ve done more with the character of Buzz Aldrin. Stoll does what he can with the material he’s given to be semi-memorable in the role, but I was expecting a bit more “substance” in the character, which is not Stoll’s fault but rather on Singer’s script and Chazelle’s direction.
The rest of the cast are in the more “supportive” nature, surrounding majority of Gosling’s Armstrong character for the feature, with most being other real-life members of the NASA organization (in various positions). This includes actor Kyle Chandler (Game Night and Friday Night Lights) as Deke Slayton, actor Ciaran Hinds (Rome and Game of Thrones) as Robert R. Gilruth, actor Pablo Schreiber (Skyscraper and 13 Hours) as Jim Lovell, actor Jason Clarke (Lawless and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as Ed White, actress Olivia Hamilton (La La Land and Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot) as Ed’s wife Patricia White, actor Christopher Abbott (Girls and It Comes at Night) as Dave Scott, actor Patrick Fugit (Outcast and Gone Girl) as Elliott See, actor Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire and Silver Linings Playbook) as Gus Grissom, and Lukas Haas (Inception and The Revenant) as Michael Collins. While all these actors (and actress) give quality performance in their respective roles, majority of these characters don’t have much to do in the movie; offering up some “small moments” here and there (depending on the scene). Much like what I said above, given the nature of the narrative structure of the film, these supporting characters are mostly one-dimensional, despite the fact that almost all recognizable names in NASA’s Space Program history. In the end, while are fine and good actors, but its most Gosling’s (as well as Foy) vehicle to drive in First Man.
Everyone knows the name and what he became famous before. Now, witness the impossible journey that astronaut Neil Armstrong faced in the movie First Man. Director Damien Chazelle latest film sees a cinematic undertaking of NASA’s space race to the Earth’s Moon, finding a narrative that’s focused on the personal / private life of Armstrong and the struggles that he must overcome to complete his mission. While the movie does stumble slightly (most notable in its lengthy runtime, several pacing issues, and few other minor criticisms), the film ultimately succeeds in being fantastic motion picture, thanks to Chazelle’s direction, a great fantastic technical presentation, and the film’s cast (most notable in Gosling and Foy). Personally, I really liked this movie. Yes, it was long and few pacing problems in its overall film structure, but I thoroughly enjoyed this film as it was definitely worth the hype as well as being quite cinematically entertaining. Thus, I would have to say that this movie gets my “highly recommended” stamp of approval and is probably the best film that Chazelle has produced to date. In the end, while La La Land, with all its color, dancing, and music scenes, is a definite crowd pleaser in a sort of “love-letter” to old Hollywood musicals, First Man is a cinematic “love letter” to the NASA Space Program, portraying a very “human” look at one of the world’s most famous astronauts and the “giant leap” he (and several others) took in order achieve Armstrong being the “first man” to walk on the moon.
Also, a personal side note, First Man is my 375th movie review since I’ve started blogging (some I’ll be releasing on here from my old blog). A personal milestone for me and for Jason’s Movie Blog. Anyways…thank you to my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers. I couldn’t have done it without you!!!
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: October 12th, 2018
Reviewed On: October 19th, 2018
First Man is 138 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language