Well, awards season is certainly upon us. After A Star is Born rolled into theaters and took audiences and critics by storm, the bar was officially set for all the remaining would-be Oscar contenders. It would be incredibly unfortunate for movie audiences if no other films were able to reach or surpass that level of quality…but thankfully that isn’t the case. First Man was a beautiful, majestic and timely reminder of all the things that truly made America great.
At this point, it doesn’t seem like Damien Chazelle is ever going to make a bad film. It’s bound to happen at some point but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be anytime soon. On the heels of his almost-but-not-quite Best Picture, La La Land, he went bigger and bolder for his encore. Taking on the Space Race of the 1960s displayed both Chazelle’s ambition and his vision as a filmmaker. The scale of the story encompasses all the majesty of the Apollo missions and, more narrowly, the bravery and sacrifice of the people at the center of them: namely, Neil Armstrong. The film is based on James R. Hansen’s biographical book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, and was adapted for the screen by Josh Singer, who took home the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his work on Spotlight (which also took home Best Picture in 2016), so it’s safe to say that Hansen’s portrait of Armstrong was in good hands. As the title suggests, the story is a more focused chronicle of Armstrong’s journey: from NASA engineer to test pilot to astronaut to a leader of the United States’ space program and eventual pioneer of space exploration.
Surprisingly, there haven’t been many non-fiction films about the space program that weren’t documentaries. Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and more recently Hidden Figures were all nominated for Best Picture (along with many other technical awards) at the Oscars which makes the scarcity of such movies even more surprising. For someone who has always admired NASA, and the space program of the 60s in particular, this was an especially powerful film. Chazelle did a masterful job charting the course of Armstrong’s personal struggles in parallel to the hurdles faced by the program and, in turn, created a film about a scientific endeavor that had a tremendous depth of heart. Using real stock footage (including JFK’s famous speech at Rice University) was a gamble because the film grain isn’t as clean, but it ended up enriching the story and made the entire viewing experience more authentic. While the runtime is a meaty two hours and 21-minutes, the storytelling is so well paced that it never felt slow but, even if it did, the end was absolutely worth the wait. The young director jumped to the head of the pack for Best Director honors and his film did the same thing in the Best Picture category. After this, Chazelle will basically be able to do whatever he wants for the rest of his career and we should all be excited to see what that is.
As much as this movie was a product of great filmmaking, it was thoroughly enhanced by quality performances. Quite simply, Ryan Gosling was exceptional as Neil Armstrong. His was a powerful, measured and stoic performance that helped shed light on one of the most famous men in history, in a sharply intimate way. This wasn’t a dialogue-heavy role where he could just charm his way through it; Armstrong endured a great deal of personal tragedy and Gosling captured the internal turmoil magnificently. His portrayal is painful to watch in instances, with a world of emotional and confusion swirling behind his eyes. The Canadian actor showcased all the skills that elevated him to the top of the industry and he can expect to be a serious contender, if not the outright favorite, for Best Actor once again this year.
Claire Foy has somehow become an incredibly hot commodity in Hollywood all of a sudden. Her role as Queen Elizabeth on the Netflix original series The Crown played a large part in her success, but her forays into film have been a mixed bag. In this instance, she was very strong opposite Gosling, playing Armstrong’s wife Janet. There was a definite lack of chemistry between the two but it wasn’t a distraction. In part, it reflected a very different time where the role of the wife was much more reserved and, additionally, their relationship wasn’t really the focal point of the film: focusing, instead, on both characters as individuals. Janet was very outspoken for the time and Foy displayed many layers of that strength while still showing all the vulnerability and fear that went along with the fragile positions for those women who watched their husbands risk everything for the sake of the space program. Unfortunately, it was noticeable she was trying to hide her accent though it never became a real issue. Regardless, her performance was critical in balancing the risk-reward analysis for the story and she’ll get nominated for Best Supporting Actress, rightfully so. It doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong year for that category right now, but there are still a few heavy hitters coming down the line before the end of the year.
As a whole, the film had an incredible cast; wouldn’t you know it, Francine Maisler was right there doing the casting once again. Jason Clarke is another one of those actors who you just can’t escape. He has never really delivered those memorable kinds of performances but he was very good here playing a substantial role as Edward Higgins White, the first American to walk in space and one of the astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire. In the nearly two dozen film roles he’s had in past eight years, this was probably his best work. Kyle Chandler was strong and steady, tapping into that Friday Night Lights experience, as the esteemed Deke Slayton, NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations who acted as a coach and mentor for the younger would-be astronauts. There really wasn’t a bad performance from the stacked cast: Ciaran Hinds, Pablo Schreiber, Corey Stoll, Ethan Embry, Christopher Abbot, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, and Patrick Fugit…which covers the majority of the main players.
This isn’t much of a segue but the visual storytelling in this film was exceptional and the moon landing sequence was absolutely breathtaking: well worth the more than two-hour journey to get there. Period accuracy was going to be one of those key components in delivering an authentic experience and the production design by Nathan Crowley was stellar from the top down. Mary Zophres costume design was period perfect and the set decoration by Randi Hokett and Kathy Lucas, particularly in both the home and office settings, was superb. And obviously, the moonscape design was gorgeous. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren returned to direct photography for Chazelle once again (La La Land). While shaky handheld filming techniques worked well to display fragility when filming inside the spacecraft, using it to mirror tension on the ground, when characters were just walking across the street, was a misstep that resulted in some very hard to watch scenes: simply because it was just difficult to see. Aside from that, the film is beautifully shot and Sandgren utilized a lot of tight close-ups to pull the focus of the audience right into the actor’s most intimate space. The optics are so effective you could watch the movie without sound and still follow mostly right along. Expect this movie to contend in all of those categories come award season.
Both the sound design and the music were spectacular as well. Justin Hurwitz also returned to collaborate with Chazelle again (La La Land) and wrote some beautiful original music: filled with notes of passion, tragedy, and hope to accompany the audience on this journey through history and the vast expanse of space. The sound department did a wonderful job building tension with their design. The intensity and modulation of pitch provided that little extra push at all the right moments. Hurwitz could be looking at a nomination for Best Original Score once again, while the sound department will likely be taking home Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing…or at least one of the two.
Space exploration has always held a special place in my heart, so perhaps I’m a little biased but this was the film I anticipated most this year and it didn’t disappoint. There’s just something about the grandeur and the scale of the adventure that capture the imagination; there’s a reason the moon landing was the most watched event in human history. First Man capitalized on all that while still delivering an intensely personal character portrait of a man the world knew very little about.
Recommendation: Definitely go see it. See it now. See it in IMAX.