First Man (2018): Movie Review

First Man (2018)

Damien Chazelle is clearly an awards season assassin.  Going from Whiplash’s brutal drumming to La La Land’s memorable awards run, and now the complex Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, Chazelle cleanly constructs American narratives with expanding variety and creativity.  First Man follows the famed astronaut’s journey from civilian engineer to the first man to step on the moon. Despite history’s common knowledge (save conspiracy theorists) that Armstrong returned from the moon, Chazelle’s film captures every ounce of the space race’s uncertainty and danger to create a thrilling, moving glimpse at the hubris and determination in American history.


A good biopic is hard to find, but a transcendent work such as First Man is nearly non-existent.  Between the brilliance of Chazelle’s La La Land team pushing themselves with Linus Sandgren’s grainy, complex cinematography, Tom Cross’s whip-smart editing, and Justin Hurwitz’s theremin filled score–part pop scifi, part John Williams space epic–the film is the best space journey since Gravity.  Add in Nathan Crowley’s claustrophobic recreations of early rockets and NASA and some fantastic performances, this film as rocketed to my favorite of the year. Josh Singer’s (Oscar winner for Spotlight) wrote an existential crisis of man versus infinity that bleeds a nation’s often foolhardy penitent for fantasticism and the consideration if monumental achievement is worth the risks.

Ryan Gosling portrays the famed astronauts with incredible subtlety; it is an internal performance expressing the existential crisis Armstrong faced in the high likelihood he wouldn’t return from any given expedition.  Jason Clarke offers a strong support role as fellow astronaut Ed White, a sobering voice for the endangered team. Claire Foy knocks Janet Armstrong’s mix of fear, concern and motherly rage into one of the finest performances of the year.  Her dismay at being sidelined while her husband is tossed into the unknown aches with every moment. Whether hovering over broadcasts of the launches, questioning the knowledge of the NASA men in charge (“You don’t have anything under control!” pure magic), or sharing a tender moment with her husband (the final scene brought tears), Foy presents a vital grounding for the film’s high ideals.  The ballet of the Gemini launch and th turmoil of its spinout are reason alone to see the film.


As for the asshats unhappy about the flag planting not being a major focus, they can go enjoy jingoistic fantasies elsewhere; you get the far off glimpse of the flag and the treatment of this movie is incredibly patriotic.  Despite the disagreement among citizens for the tax dollars poured into the space program, the film focuses on the nearly insurmountable obstacles in the way that JFK denounced in one of his most famous speeches: ““We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”  The American way has always been to tackle the big goals regardless of difficulty. The film fulfills that fantasy in many ways.


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