+ Recommended – R, Drama, Biography (141 minutes)
It’s official! Oscar season is upon us for the final months of 2018. This year has brought us many great movies, but I assure you that more are on the way. Depending on what you consider to be an “Oscar contender” this could have started a week ago, with A Star Is Born, but for me it’s an ongoing process throughout the year. First Man, indeed, has all the key ingredients of Oscar contender, but will Ryan Gosling’s perceived lack of acting have an affect on the chances of a nomination for both “Best Picture” and “Best Actor?”
The definitive answer to that question: no, no it will not. Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) is back to direct Gosling in his latest flick, focusing on the unapologetic challenges that NASA faced during the early stages of space exploration. Gosling plays Neil Armstrong: the first astronaut who walked on the moon, July 20th, 1969. He is surrounded by an incredible cast that includes the likes of Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Edward White), and Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin). These particular actors play well off each other and are able to develop relationships with minimal dialogue, thanks to screenwriter Josh Singer. Claire Foy’s take on a stay-at-home wife, separated from her husband who’s on a life threatening mission is surprisingly relatable. The distance between them, both physically and emotionally, is explored with great care and without the use of formulaic beats, mainly with bits of sub-textual details.
A tremendous challenge that the crew needed to overcome was the portrayal of Neil Armstrong and the other NASA astronauts working on competing in the space race. At the time, stakes were high. The Soviet Union was effectively beating America in every sense of the word race, launching Sputnik and continuing to maneuver around the United States’ attempts to succeed. Where First Man excels compared to other space race properties is style: removing the gloss and polish from our perception of the actual events. In a way, it was glorified and shown in a very patriotic, and triumphant manner beforehand; here it’s the exact opposite. Numerous deaths occurred while working on these space programs, and we’re unbelievably lucky that more people didn’t lose their lives.
Chazelle utilizes the technique of shaky-cam interspersed with POV shots to increase the level of urgency of each new obstacle, or technical failure. We’re not just simply seeing the events unfold, they’re felt at every turn; most notably with the launch of Gemini 8 and then again with Apollo 11. See this movie in IMAX and with Dolby Atmos. Through the perspective of the astronauts, these missions, deemed dangerous from the get-go, become all the more frightening. Your visual field of space flight is limited, in some cases, restricted, just like their’s. Your body is chilled right down to the bone, just like their’s. It’s truly an intimate experience, being in an isolated space where so much equipment has the potential to malfunction, and you pray it doesn’t, even with the knowledge that the mission will ultimately be successful.
While it may have been done before, numerous times, it has never been executed quite like this, in a dense, chilling atmosphere. Even with all the discussion surrounding the lengthy first and second act, the ending wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful disregarding the previous successes and failures leading up to the moon landing. Once on the moon, the film rewards your time with breathtaking visuals, and an emotional undertone that ripples through the end credits. Watch closely, as Chazelle often provides a quaint look into the social environment in the background of each scene: broadcast television and signs are very prominent and will give you insight into the time period, and the cultural shifts occurring. While Chazelle’s directorial style may be invisible to the viewer, Justin Hurwitz (La La Land, Whiplash) returns with a beautiful score that sounds eerily familiar to lovers of Chazelle’s previous work; the musical chords are Chazelle’s trademark, easily identifiable within the first few notes.
There’s so much to explore still, both in the story and outside of it. But the movie lives up to the critical hype. Make it a point to catch First Man in cinema’s now.