In 2017, at 32 years of age, Damien Chazelle became the youngest person ever to win the Best Director Oscar. He won that award for his work on La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Chazelle again reunites with Gosling for his follow up feature First Man, and it’s possibly – perhaps almost certainly – his best film to date.
First Man follows American astronaut Neil Armstrong (Gosling) from 1961 to 1969, when he infamously became the first man to walk on the moon. We all know what happened when Armstrong led the Apollo 11 mission to the moon – “one small step…” etc. But what many of us don’t know much about is the decade-long journey leading up to that moment.
The film opens in 1961. Armstrong is a test pilot but at home, his young daughter is fighting a tumour. Not long after the little girl passes away, Armstrong joins NASA’s Gemini/Apollo program. It’s a fresh start for the family who never really see Neil grieve the child because, as much as it follows him throughout the film, he holds it all inside.
Claire Foy plays Neil’s wife Janet, and in the 60’s-stay-at-home-wife role, could have easily been relegated to a background cliché. However, Foy is powerful as the emotional core of the film. Janet not only lives in her own constant fear that her husband won’t come home, but she also carries the weight of the emotions that he so often represses.
Gosling too is as good as ever. His performance as Armstrong is compelling as he and Chazelle move so effortlessly between intimate character study and motion-sickness-inducing action, both of which are totally captivating in their own ways.
The effects and the composition of the space sequences are exhilarating, at times even frightening. In fact, by the time the film reaches the infamous moon landing, the event feels less like the climax you might be anticipating.
This isn’t to say it’s not spectacular. Chazelle delivers one of the most convincing portrayals of space, and the moon in particular, that I can recall seeing. The moment is breathtaking and surreal but we’re all so familiar with the moon landing that it’s also kind of unsurprising. Therefore, after the equally-thrilling but lesser-known events that have led up to this point, it becomes more of an inevitable finale (albeit a pretty remarkable one) than a suspenseful climax.
With First Man, Chazelle has managed to craft a film which feels simultaneously vast and intimate. Thrilling and jarring and moving, Chazelle shoots for (and reaches) the stars with First Man. It’s well worth checking out, in fact, it could well be the best space movie you’ll see for a long time. And frankly, it’s really exciting to think about what’s to come next from the director.
Damien Chazelle’s first choice to play the role of Neil Armstrong was always Ryan Gosling. Gosling was even rumored to be attached to the project during its development stage but nothing was officially confirmed. It wasn’t until after Gosling did La La Land (2016) with Chazelle that Gosling would officially sign on to do the project.