The moon land is an event so engrained in public memory that it’s somewhat challenging to consider its magnitude at the time. First Man isn’t the story of the moon landing per se, but it uses the moon landing as the climax in the story of Neil Armstrong, a complicated and reluctant individual who made many hard choices and sacrifices along the journey to the lunar mission. First Man is a gorgeous character piece, a weighty and intense thriller about an impossible mission where the odds where stacked against Armstrong, but it’s also an emotionally riveting story of one man’s direction in life that captures the magnitude of his journey.
The film chronicles the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from the early 1960s and the tumultuous journey it took to get to the moon, including the strain it put on his wife (Claire Foy). Gosling has distinguished himself as one of the best in the business, having starred in many of the best films in recent memory, and here he brings another quiet, unassuming performance; Armstrong was struck by many tragedies and never neccessarily considered himself a hero, yet there was a great deal of love within him and Gosling brings out the soulful, latent heroism in his role. Claire Foy is simply terrific as well as the seemingly helpless bystander who’s left to keep their family together when Armstrong faces death on a daily basis.
The portrayal of space travel is among the most claustrophobic, nerve wracking things I can remember seeing; from the in the moment calculations and decisions that are made to the dubious nature of the technology, space travel is seen as the ultimate odyssey of which there is no certainty. Director Damien Chazelle gives us a gritty, grainy look at the ’60s, and while maintaining an authenticity in it’s production design, this is clearly not a docudrama, as the space scenes are operatic, beautiful, and enchanting, hearkening back to the “tone poem” films of the ’60s and ’70s whilst marveling in the actions of one individual’s impact on human achievement.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning the film’s strongest element, which is the incredible score by Justin Hurwitz, a frequent collaborator of Chazelle’s. Hurwitz’s score captures nearly every emotion needed, letting us sit back in awe, smile as adventure begins, and become affected by Armstrong’s personal triumph. The final scenes, including Armstrong’s solitary moments isolated from Earth and his reunion with his wife, are peak cinematic moments that combine terrific acting, beautifully constructed shots, and blended by a melodic and introspective score.
First Man is a masterpiece, and while its true that its both Chazelle’s third masterpiece and his third film, there’s simple never been a depiction of space live this. In the film we see our characters react to space’s fetishization and fight through its danger, yet continue in their assignments “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It’s a remarkable statement and a remarkable film, audacious in its depiction of trauma and inspiring in its perspective on history. Grade: A+