Damien Chazelle’s dedication to realism and absorption are immediately apparent within the opening minutes of First Man, where he thrusts you into the mindset of being alone in uncharted territory. This will be a cliche used in every review of this film, but it’s true: You really feel like you’re on those spaceships. Chazelle utilizes POV shots and a jarring sound design to great effect in the launch sequences to create an immersive experience that rivals those of veteran filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or James Cameron.
Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances as Neil Armstrong, continuing one of the greatest acting hotstreaks in recent memory. Armstrong is not your typical leading man. He is quiet, reserved, and unemotional. In the hands of a lesser actor, this character could come off as unempathetic and cold, but Gosling shows the deeper struggle and fear within Neil. His fear, and subsequent bravery, are not shown, but felt at a gut level. Alongside Gosling is Claire Foy, who gives her best performance to date as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, a woman struggling to hold their family together while Neil prepares for his dangerous missions. Her struggle is only worsened by the premature death of their daughter, Karen, at the beginning of the film. Janet’s passion and frustration are the perfect foil to Neil’s internalized emotional conflict. This dichotomy is perhaps best shown during the couple’s pivotal argument before the launch of Apollo 11. Apart from being one of the film’s most memorable moments, this scene will also undoubtedly play at the Oscars, while Foy’s name and the words “Best Supporting Actress” appear on screen.
Damien Chazelle, who is now the youngest Best Director winner in Oscar history for La La Land, adopts a rougher, more mumblecore style for First Man, utilizing 16mm film that harkens back to his earliest work on Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. In the more intimate moments, the camera wanders, avoids perfect focus, and imitates a low budget “home movie” style that is incredibly rare for a $70 million studio picture. This style heightens the realism of these specific scenes, though they also slow down the film due to their meandering nature. When the camera moves into these micro-moments, it’s an effective way of grounding the film in the reality of how one man’s actions can affect the course of history. However, the film may have been better served by adding more of these scenes, as you receive mere glimpses of the Armstrongs’ hone life rather than the full picture.
Longtime Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz returns to compose the score, which is also his first “non-jazz” score. The score is incredibly emotional, and uses unusual instruments like a theremin to create its otherworldly sound. However, there is one motif that sounds frustratingly similar to “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” from La La Land. This seems like such a small nitpick, but both motifs are significant to their respective films, so their connection is a bit distracting.
On the whole, it is impressive that First Man can remain suspenseful, considering the entire audience already knows how the story ends. Chazelle’s direction and Josh Singer’s screenplay never let you forget just how dangerous these missions were and how any small mistake could, and often did, lead to a catastrophic disaster. Luckily, the film itself is anything but disastrous, succeeding both narratively and visually. Its mind-blowing moon landing sequence, which was shot in glorious IMAX, is reason enough to shell out seventeen dollars. First Man is another Damien Chazelle winner for sure, and it will undoubtedly be a part of the conversation throughout awards season. ★★★★½