By Jack Dignan
When the trailers started dropping for First Man, a lot of people on the internet started jokingly asking “where’s the jazz?” Given that director Damien Chazelle’s first three films, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash and almost best picture winner La La Land, all revolved around music and the arts, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to ask. Well, I have good news for you, folks. There’s a scene in First Man during which Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong and Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin listen to a jazz cassette cape on the way to the moon. This is not a joke. And I really hope the internet isn’t disappointed.
We all know the story of Neil Armstrong’s remarkable achievement. He was, as the title aptly insinuates, the first man to walk on the moon. But how did mankind achieve such an astonishing feat? And after how many lives lost do we insist that enough is enough? You may know the story, but you don’t know the real story, and that’s what First Man has to offer. This is a grounded (I guess not technically?), personal story of the cost of dreams, one that tells Armstrong and NASA’s mission from a unique perspective that you’re unlikely to get from anywhere else, and despite my initial skepticism, this film absolutely won me over.
It’s easy to get lost in the grandeur and spectacle of an event such as this one, choosing patriotism over intimacy, but Academy Award winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) never does that. He puts character in the forefront, telling a unique and moving story of a grieving father who had to travel all the way to space just to accept his loses in life. You’re probably going to cry. Gosling’s take on Armstrong is a career high. There’s so much nuance and internalization to the way he explores Neil’s inner turmoil, but as an audience member we feel everything. It feels very akin to some of Gosling’s previous performances, particularly the latest Blade Runner, and yet he still manages to make it a league of his own.
But we couldn’t have this story with Claire Foy’s utterly remarkable performance as Janet Armstrong. She’s a woman after a simple life, who just so happened to marry a man who ensures it’s anything but, and the film thrives on the importance of this. Normality is dull. Live a life nobody else can dream of, but one the whole world can celebrate. Foy’s brilliance is the heart and soul of this movie, and in a story brimming with testosterone, she’s always able to bring their egos back down to the ground and make them realise just how ridiculous they’re being. Some of her sub-plots do feel a little tedious, but it all plays into the overarching grief complex that’s being explored here, and the final moments of the film serve as the ultimate payoff.
Just speaking from a technical level, there’s nothing out there this year that even comes close. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s over-reliance of shaky cam may not sit well with all viewers, but for me it was perfect, especially during the more tense and nauseating sequences. Sandgren ensures you feel every jolt of the ship and every flicker on the controls. But it’s not just the camera’s movements that make this film as impressive as it is; it’s pretty much everything. Costuming, set designs, sound editing and score are all an unbridled success. First Man is such an immersive, powerful biopic, and it’s the technical side of things that really make it so. Expect it to win a bunch of technical Oscars (during commercial breaks apparently, much to my frustration) come February.
First Man may not be able to reach beyond the extraordinarily high bar set by Whiplash and La La Land, but this film is an entirely different beast, and one that could’ve only been created from a master of his craft. Chazelle, the youngest person to ever win ‘Best Director’ at the Oscars, continues to astound. This movie is remarkable achievement. And while I can’t personally speak on how this film plays in IMAX, as unfortunately I’m yet to experience it, there’s no way a film like this isn’t going to benefit from the format. This is a film you need to see on the biggest screen possible, and one I’m definitely going to experience again.
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