Starring:Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, and Kyle Chandler
“Where were you?” History, tragic and triumphant, can have a profound effect on how the future will look back on certain moments of change, so impactful that it becomes a date, time, or place that you will remember for your entire life. Where were you on September 11th? Where were you when Barack Obama was elected President? These are two recent moments that have that effect. However, before these recent memories, perhaps the greatest “where were you” moment was when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the surface of the moon.
Director Damien Chazelle, who won the Academy Award for directing the musical “La La Land” in 2016, crafts a grandiose and intimate film focused on Neil Armstrong and the American space program leading up to the momentous Apollo 11 undertaking. “First Man” is an unglamorous yet beautifully depicted look at the struggles, obstacles, and catastrophes experienced in the space race in the 1960’s.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an ordinary man working in an extraordinary job. The calm demeanor and literal analysis of situations around him make him an unusual person working amidst engineers and pilots at NASA. But underneath this straight-forward demeanor is a man diligently striving to create an ordinary life for his kids and his loving, long-suffering, wife Janet (Claire Foy). But his occupation propels him into the national spotlight as America tries to beat Russia into expeditions beyond earth.
As director Damien Chazelle continues to expand the size of his films, the focus remains on a singular character chasing their ambitious dreams. “Whiplash” and “La La Land” both showcase a young person struggling to establish themselves in an unknown world in pursuit of their passion. Neil Armstrong, played with intriguing softness by Ryan Gosling, is also pursuing a dream that will take him into an unknown world. Mr. Chazelle does a nice job of exploring the character, never offering much of a history lesson but rather looking into the personal afflictions, specifically the loss his daughter Karen, that would define the motivation of a man who was consistently looking towards the heavens. It’s never glamorously constructed but instead restrained in its depiction of the world around him.
This controlled perspective may not provide the splendor and awe seen in other space travel movies, where space shuttles float amidst starry filled backgrounds, but the purpose of maintaining minimal views helps in creating tension and making this well-known adventure to the moon have some kind of uncertainty associated with it. It’s a method that works early in the film, but as the historical familiarity settles in during the third act it, unfortunately, doesn’t connect the emotion as it feels like it intended and instead feels underwhelming. Still, Mr. Chazelle understands how to evoke that old-fashioned Hollywood nostalgia in moments, sometimes it’s big and boisterous and other times it’s small and composed.
Neil Armstrong is portrayed as a mild-mannered family man who fits in nicely at the neighborhood barbecue; Mr. Gosling provides a quiet, analytical perspective for the character. Claire Foy provides the standout performance here however as Janet Armstrong. Ms. Foy is tasked with being the emotional core of the film and she succeeds on numerous levels.
Mr. Chazelle takes a few moments to look into the American perspective of the time, with protests about the space programs exorbitant funding and one Gil Scott-Heron song that clearly identifies the race relation situation, but he never examines these aspects for long. “First Man” remains clear of its purpose of displaying the space race from the eyes of the man who would become the hero America was looking for at the time.
3.50 out of 5.00