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Review: First Man

October 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Damian Chazelle follows up his Oscar-winning films Whiplash and La La Land with First Man, a space race drama that follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) over seven years as he prepares to become the first man to walk on the moon.

The film charts Armstrong’s journey from his time as a test pilot who, following the tragic death of his young daughter to a brain tumour, decides to join NASA’s Project Gemini, as a way to both conceal and channel his grief into something concrete. This provides the main dramatic backbone of First Man, with Armstrong’s drive to get to the moon being portrayed in the film as an inward journey for him as much as it is an outward one.

Through this, Josh Singer’s script offers a meticulous look at the trials and tribulations that went into actually getting to the moon, and at times this approach feels overly procedural. The film takes us through the Gemini 8 mission, which helped them fine tune the docking technology needed for the Apollo 11 mission, documenting the struggles that the space program faced with malfunctioning equipment, personal setbacks and even losses of life, as well as increasing pressure to beat the Soviet Union, which added to the sense of urgency that underscored the entire process.

Armstrong does everything with a sort of quiet determination, pushing himself forward and becoming singularly obsessed with going to the moon, not for the fame and media attention it will get him, but rather for his own personal sense of accomplishment. We see his somewhat competitive training with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Ed White (Jason Clarke), and also his home life with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their young sons, who miss having their father at home and have to come to terms with the fact that he might not return, building up to the actual moon landing in 1969.

The film zeroes in on specific moments, only rarely pulling back to show the larger scope, and while Chazelle’s choice to reimagine man’s trip to the moon through a series of more intimate character moments is a somewhat interesting one, it also didn’t entirely work for me, and I’m not sure if it was really the right approach to telling this story. For me, the film doesn’t entirely capture the true sense of excitement that must have gripped America and the world as Armstrong walked on the moon. What we get instead is a fairly conventional biopic and somewhat drab family drama, that becomes an overly impressionistic look at the moon landing itself.

The film became the point of controversy following its premiere in Venice a little while ago, when word got out that they chose to forego showing the iconic moments when Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon. Any possible political motivations for this omission aside, the real reason why they don’t show this moment is because First Man isn’t really focused on showing the moon landing as an incredible achievement for America as a whole, but instead about portraying it as a personal and deeply introspective journey for Armstrong himself.

Whether this paired back character drama approach to dramatizing the moon landing works for you or not will likely depend on what sort of film you are hoping to get, but First Man still has enough going for it to make it worth seeing, at least from a technical standpoint. The film is very well acted by Gosling, who is a natural fit for the role of Armstrong, believably portraying him as a quiet, stoic man who doesn’t really view himself as the hero that everybody else sees him as. The rest of the cast does strong work as well, even if all of the supporting roles aren’t equally fleshed out.

The film does have some moments that inspire the appropriate sense of awe, and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is great. Shot using a mix of 16mm, 35mm and 65mm film stock, there is a filmic grain to it that evokes the time period quite well and recalls classics like The Right Stuff. These images make First Man worthy of being seen in IMAX, with the film switching aspect ratios during the climactic moments on the moon to make stunning use of the extra height provided by the giant screen, showing the full grandeur of space itself.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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