“First Man” Movie Review

     “First Man” brings “Whiplash” and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle into what may be perceived by most as the kind of epic and crowd pleasing material the filmmaker should certainly flourish with, particularly given the All-American vibe the story of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon conjures in the mainstream.  But like all gifted filmmakers, Chazelle chooses to follow his own unique path in telling the story, and in the process takes the portrayal of Armstrong to places many are likely unaware of.  For all the unwarranted chatter about how the film depicts the events that took place July 20, 1969, “First Man” is an emotional and thought provoking tribute to the men and women who endured endless tragedy, ridicule, and self depreciation in order for Armstrong to become the first person to walk on the moon.  The flag is always there in the background, but this story is about something significantly more important to Armstrong, as most will certainly agree after viewing the film.

     “First Man” isn’t the glossy effects spectacle which made hits such as “Gravity”, “Interstellar”, and “The Martian” the kind of escapism entertainment the masses seem to crave.  Chazelle is clearly in this to achieve something different.  A film that puts the audience directly into the shoes of the astronauts, often from their point of view and without the presence of shots outside of the space craft.  Instead, we see the same minimized view from the small port holes they are looking through, as the endless movement and shaking, combined with the kind of continuous noise that would indicate the craft could break apart at any second, rocks the senses to a point where you wonder how anyone could think clearly when they really need to.  This isn’t a pretty theatrical experience, but it just may be the most realistic one of space travel ever committed to film.

     Chazelle re-teams with his “La La Land” leading man, Ryan Gosling, who portrays Armstrong as a quiet and focused man with an often brooding personality.  Much of this may be a result of the lingering effects from a recent and tragic loss, but it becomes clear to the decision makers that Armstrong has the chops to succeed under pressure and could be instrumental in NASA’s Space Program and goal to send a mission to the moon.  At times, it seemed as though Gosling was channeling many of the same mannerisms he utilized as “K” in the recent “Blade Runner 2049”, but there are also hints of a man whose singular focus and meticulous efforts are certain to lead to one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

     As Armstrong’s wife, Janet, Claire Foy provides the emotional spark when her husband seems to be in another place all together, at least mentally speaking.  In this era, she’s the stay at home wife who supports her husband’s career and the choices that come with it, all while raising their young children.  Of course, he spends his time training for the worst case scenario, attempting to stabilize a space craft while in a simulator that spins him every which way.  This and other training exercises in which various portions of the mission are tested out, leave many of the participants wounded or sometimes worse.  What Chazelle really hammers home here is the fact the prospects of space travel in 1969 were not easy, which also explains to a certain extent why we haven’t been to the moon since.

     The film is based on the book by James R. Hansen, who is the foremost expert on Armstrong, having spent years at his side conducting countless detailed interviews and gaining a full understanding of his experiences in the space program.  Chazelle explores a number of topics, including the Cold War competition between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. to be the first to send a man to the moon, as well as the politics surrounding the event in which the cost of the program became an issue during the Civil Rights movement when activists looked at the venture as a whites only endeavor.  The script by Josh Singer ensures many of these events are worked into the background, but the focus remains on Armstrong’s journey from a test pilot and engineer to the Apollo 11 mission that ultimately achieved a goal once thought impossible.

     In his third stint in the director’s chair, Chazelle has delivered yet another awards worthy film that is certain to remain on the short list for being considered one of the best of the year.  He is clearly one of the finest young filmmakers of his generation.  Stand out supporting performances by Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Jason Clarke as Edward White, and the ever dependable Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton round out an impressive ensemble that brings an undeniable chemistry to every scene.  But the most impressive sequence by far is the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon and open the hatch, revealing a barren, desolate sea of wonder and intrigue.  Those moments are some of the best you will see in any cinematic presentation intended to be a realistic portrayal of an important event in our history.  And Chazelle brings so much more to the thoughts going through Armstrong’s mind as he took those iconic steps.  Thoughts that eclipse the need to perform some random patriotic act, and instead resonate within the very things we hold closest to us, but all too often lose sight of.  GRADE A