Film Review: First Man; Director reveals astronaut’s complexity with moving plot

Filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s most recent film First Man is a thoughtful biopic about the man Neil Armstrong—played by Ryan Gosling—who took the giant moon leap for mankind. 

While not as electrifying as Chazelle’s previous films, First Man distinguishes itself by its nuanced performances, intimacy and technical mastery.

At only 33 years old, Damien Chazelle is already one of the most exciting directors in Hollywood. Critics and audiences alike began to take notice of the talented young filmmaker after his second film, 2014’s Whiplash, was nominated for five Oscar awards, including Best Picture. 

Chazelle’s excellence continued in 2016 when he partnered with actor Ryan Gosling to create a love letter to the city of Los Angeles in the movie-musical La La Land.

First Man shares a theme with the Damien Chazelle pictures that preceded it: ambition and the sacrifices necessary to allow those ambitions to come to fruition. 

Both La La Land and Whiplash highlight what people must sacrifice to pursue greatness. Chazelle usually illustrates these sacrifices in a way that is explosive and moving, but First Man delivers that same message in a much quieter, subtle way.

Like the moon itself, Gosling’s performance does not shine on its own, but it reflects the film’s technical brilliance and amplifies the subtleties within the script. His understated portrayal of Neil Armstrong has maybe the least amount of dialogue out of many of the typical Oscar-bait  “movie star.”

Armstrong’s sacrifices aren’t obvious and they aren’t illustrated through dialogue, rather through close-ups throughout the film that emphasize the character’s stoicism as aspects of his life crumble around him. 

Because Neil Armstrong is so subdued in this film, the emotional heavy lifting is done by Claire Foy and her masterful performance of Neil’s wife, Janet. 

While Neil puts his head down and works to make history day in and day out, it is up to Janet to hold their house together and raise their children. She must complete this thankless task all whilst stressing over the safety of her husband as astronaut after astronaut loses their lives during the Gemini and Apollo missions. 

Foy’s performance reaches an emotional breaking point when she releases all of her pent-up fear and anger to berate her husband’s earth-bound guides.

First Man is a thrilling roller coaster of a movie that effectively captures the excitement and terror that surrounded the space race in the 1960s. Its synthesis of sound, practical effects and superb casting allows the weighty story to thrive in a way that it never could under less-talented direction.  

While not his best work, Chazelle’s fourth film is an exciting, risky examination of human obsession and the consequences of unabashed ambition.