Neil Armstrong’s achievements are universally known.
Notoriously humble and private, Armstrong the man is not known nearly as well.
Oscar winner Damian Chazelle’s first foray into filmmaking after the massive success of 2016’s “La La Land” the teams the filmmaker with star Ryan Gosling, who peers into the soul of Armstrong.
“First Man” begins several years before Armstrong’s famous walk on the Moon and chronicles his journey to the Apollo 11 mission on both the home and work fronts.
With “First Man,” Chazelle has crafted his most understated film to date, an arresting and poignant film about the physical, emotional and psychological tolls the space race of the 1960s had on NASA’s most famous astronaut, his co-workers and his family.
Gosling delivers a stoic, internalize performance as Armstrong, which allows the Canadian actor to say so much without actually speaking many words. His Armstrong is calm and collected under the pressures of the job, but struggles to connect emotionally with his wife and children.
There’s a somberness to his performance, especially in Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet, that is devastatingly detached and helps viewers better understand the sacrifices families made in pursuit of the unknown.
Claire Foy gives the film’s most demonstrative performance and yet is also subdued in her work. Her Janet clings on to the fringes of Neil’s world, trying to understand her husband while maintaining order for her young sons. Her best scenes are opposite Gosling when she is able to challenge and comfort in effortless push-and-pull drama.
The film boasts a terrific supporting cast that accentuates Armstrong’s journey without getting in the way, led by Jason Clarke as Armstrong’s neighbor and fellow astronaut Ed White, Kyle Chandler as NASA chief Deke Slayton and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin.
Though it’s unfortunate that this has to be spelled out, “First Man” is by no means anti-American as has been portrayed in some news outlets prior to the film’s release.
It’s true Chazelle chose not to film a moment where Armstrong and Aldrin plant the American flag on the Moon’s surface.
That doesn’t mean the flag was wiped from the film altogether.
The stars and stripes are clearly visible on the lunar surface, on the astronauts’ clothing and at various other points throughout the film.
“First Man” is a film about American achievement and human achievement. The two aren’t mutually exclusive in Chazelle’s work.
Chazelle authors a striking portrait of Armstrong in tandem with his Oscar-winning “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren.
While the film is dynamic from start to finish, the beauty Sandgren is able to pull out of each moment in space using IMAX camera is stunning and requires viewing on the best and biggest screen possible.
Chazelle also smartly teamed with production designer Nathan Crowley, a frequent collaborator of Christopher Nolan, to give the world of NASA a practical and authentic look and feel.
“First Man” is one of two films to arrive in a majority of theaters across the country – along with “A Star Is Born” – to be a frontrunner for Academy Award nominations this spring. The film is all but assured a Best Picture nomination with Gosling and Foy likely acting noms and Chazelle expected to be in contention for another Best Director win.
“First Man” alternates between being a high-octane adventure in its air/space scenes and a slow, deliberate drama in quieter, introspective moments on the ground.
A visually impressive film, “First Man” is worthy of an outing to the theater to catch Chazelle and Sandgren’s work on a big screen, though the slow pace will discourage some moviegoers.
A trip to a IMAX screen might prove to be the most enjoyable way to catch Chazelle’s visual retelling of Armstrong’s historic adventure.