Starring-Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy
Scott’s Review #915
Reviewed July 4, 2019
First Man (2018) is a re-teaming of efforts by director Damian Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling, hot on the heels of the 2016 critical and commercial smash hit La La Land. The former could not be more different the latter and the direction unrecognizable for those expecting a comparison. First Man is a mainstream Hollywood production with good camerawork and an edgy quality. The necessary full-throttle action approach is interspersed nicely with a personal family story and humanistic spin that is never too sappy nor forced.
The focus of the story is on Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and the events leading up to the historic Apollo 11 mission which resulted in the him being the first United States astronaut to walk on the moon. Buzzy Aldrin (Corey Stoll), the second man to walk on the moon is featured to a lesser degree and his character is portrayed as self-centered and difficult though screen time is limited. The overall message is of the triumphs and the costs to families, the astronauts and the country during an already tumultuous decade in history.
Events of the film begin in 1961 as we see Armstrong as a young NASA test pilot suffering mishaps due to his personal problems and culminates in 1969 after the successful mission concludes. Chazelle wisely balances human and personal scenes with the inevitable rocket take-offs and outer space problems that the astronauts face. Both segments turn out well and keep the action moving, allowing for tender moments between the characters especially showcasing the relationship between Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Lacking (thankfully) are the scenes of machismo or “guy talk” that sometimes accompany films in this genre.
During one of the first scenes the audience quickly witnesses the couple’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Karen retching and suffering from learning disabilities only to quickly die from a brain tumor forever destroying the couple. This important aspect reoccurs as Neil imagines his daughter playing with neighborhood kids and enjoying life. In a wonderful moment he tearfully drops Karen’s tiny bracelet into a giant crater in the hopes of always keeping her memory alive. These additions give the film a character driven quality.
Worthy of analysis before and after viewing the film is the decision of the young director to tackle such a project, heartily appealing to the mainstream audience undoubtedly in mind. Legendary director Clint Eastwood was originally slated to direct and the historically rich story seems right up his alley. Interesting to wonder is if during the 1990’s Tom Hanks might have been cast in the role of Armstrong during his younger days, playing a similar role in Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13.
Well-known character actors appear in supporting roles fleshing out the production and further adding name and face recognition. Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Ciaran Hinds appear as astronauts or various NASA Chiefs. Viewers who may not be able to name the actors will certainly recognize them as actors seen in other features. This only brings First Man to the big leagues with a hearty and talented central cast.
Gosling and Foy are the main draw and both actors were mentioned as possibilities for Oscar nominations throughout awards season, but a slot in the big race did not come to fruition. While the film drew a couple of nominations for Best Editing and Best Score, a Best Picture nomination was not to be, probably due to the film not being as big a blockbuster success as expected. The film is also more brooding and less patriotic than a Howard or Eastwood production would have been.
To expand on this, First Man came under attack by Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and President Donald Trump for Chazelle’s decision to omit any mention of the famous planting of the American Flag on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. Chazelle refused to admit this was any sort of political statement, instead insisting he chose to focus more on the lesser known aspects of the moon landing rather than facts that everybody already knew.
Youngster Damian Chazelle proves a multi-faceted director by changing course and creating a historic biopic much different from a story of singing and dancing in Los Angeles. He proves to be no one-trick pony and gets the job done, creating a brave and robust effort that does not limit action at the hands of humanity, successfully weaving a good dose of both. First Man (2018) may not be a classic in the making but deserves to be seen.