It’s been nearly fifty years since Neal Armstrong first set foot on that globe of white rock we know as the moon. Fifty years. And in that half a century, there hasn’t been a stellar movie about this incredible work of science and exploration that once awed the world.
Let me tell you now, that wait is over.
First Man (2018); Directed by Damien Chazelle
First and foremost, you should see this movie and you should see it on the biggest screen possible. This is the first time (and probably the last) I may ever specifically recommend you see a movie in Imax. Let me tell you, it was worth every extra penny.
Whatever preconceived notions you may have, take any idea of this movie as a thrilling ride to the moon and toss it in the bin .With the acknowledgment this is a work of fiction and not a documentary, First Man is a portrait. A portrait of Neil Armstrong and his transition from a man to the legendary figure that every American child learns the name of in grade school. A slow burn, this film is a drama, with heat simmering just beneath the surface for a large portion of the runtime, before it explodes into one of the most breathtaking climaxes I’ve seen in a very, very long time. Ryan Gosling is spectacular as Neil Armstrong, portrayed here as a dedicated, fearless man; yet cold and detached as the very stars he seeks to walk among. Gosling’s range continues to surprise, one can only imagine what he will achieve in the next couple of years. The cast is all wonderful, with particularly good performances from Claire Foy and Jason Clarke.
First Man takes a story we all know the broad strokes of and fills in the little details, while being masterfully crafted enough to make one almost doubt the happy ending we all know is coming. There are portions of this film that are convincing enough in their dread and tension you may, for the briefest of moments, forget that Neil does make it, that he does survive, that he succeeds. How could he succeed, with odds like these stacked against him? First Man takes great effort to put you in Neil’s shoes, to see what he saw, and dear god is it terrifying. Here and now, it’s almost a given that, yes, we made it to the moon in July of 1969. But seeing the early failures, the inside of these rockets, what it took to make this work, how simple it would have been to fail, it seems a miracle that they even made it at all. It breathes new life, detail, and emotion into one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind.
Damien Chazelle has grown even more as a filmmaker since La La Land, his filmography full of his efforts to expand and enhance the artform readily apparent. His use of color and mastery of simple, yet dazzling visuals are here, yes, but he also brings an interesting use of handheld shots. He gives the film a very real feeling, almost as if you are watching these events as they happen, contrasted excellently with the stillness of space, a breath of tranquil motionlessness in the chaos of extraterrestrial flight.
As mentioned above, First Man is a gorgeous film, both on the ground and in the sky. Excellent use of miniatures helps add that extra dose of realistic lighting to make the space sequences flawless, many kudos to the miniature effects supervisor on this project, Ian Hunter (you may know him from his work on interstellar). It is so very refreshing to see top-notch miniature work making a comeback in big budget movies. All these little things help work together to make this film as excellent as it is.
One of the most flippant things people will say of a movie is something to the effect of, “Oh, well, I didn’t notice the score, so it’s good, I guess.” A score is integral to the film, in the same way as the cinematography, the acting, or the script. Some scores detract from the film, some truthfully don’t add anything, and some…some enhance the entire experience. This is most definitely the latter. Justin Hurwitz again shoots for the moon and absolutely succeeds here. Subtle when it needs to be, a dreadful drone of mounting tension, bits of Kubrickian elegance here and there, eventually exploding in a crescendo of glory; this is a score I will be listening to for a long, long time.
Never slow, never boring, always riveting, and worthy of every bit of praise that has been offered its way, First Man is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. A shining star of cinematic excellence twinling out of the early fall film slate, everyone should go see this. A man near me brought his kids to the theatre and I truthfully wondered if this was a movie they’d care about, or even have the slightest shred of interest in. But the excited whisper of their voices as they left the theatre told me that this was something wonderful, something to be celebrated. I don’t think I’ve ever come out of a movie to see kids so excited about space. Well, if you don’t count Guardians of the Galaxy…
Go see First Man.
And, no, I couldn’t find a fishbowl for the photo, to my dismay.
What did you think of First Man? Agree or disagree? Is there anything out now that you think I should review? Let me know in the comments or check out the Contact page, I hope to hear from you guys.