‘First Man’ explores the toll of getting Neil Armstrong to the moon
Sending a man to the moon was one of the most difficult and dangerous missions ever attempted in human history. Its toll, in finances and human life, are ever-apparent in “First Man.” So is the cost of Neil Armstrong’s personal journey, one full of pain and tumult.
“First Man” straps audiences into the cockpit and shoots them hurtling toward the unknown, dark reaches of space over and over again as the Gemini missions and various test procedures carry the film to the impending Apollo 11 mission. Decidedly, the film’s tension peaks somewhere in the second act but its emotional climax carries much more weight than any of the space shuttle scenes could.
Ryan Gosling leads the film as Armstrong and does an outstanding job -- showcasing his now trademarked restraint and layered acting chops. However, the real standout (and Oscar-worthy performance) is Claire Foy, best known for Netflix’s “The Crown,” as Janet Armstrong. Foy brings energy to scenes that oftentimes need it. Her rapport with Gosling starts weak but grows throughout the film as they get more and more screen time together.
Technically, the film is a nauseating marvel. Director Damien Chazelle has previously demonstrated his ability behind the camera with the near Best Picture Winner “La La Land,” and does so again by constraining camera’s perspective to the inside of spaceships and first person views. Chazelle has no fear rocking the camera violently, back and forth, simulating to the best of his ability what the astronauts felt (and making us feel it, too). Jarring and claustrophobic cinematography worked perfectly to create anxiety-induced action scenes.
Composer Justin Hurwitz collaborates once again with Chazelle on this film, and though his score is as fluid and fitting to the epic scale of such a feat, the film works best when it uses less music -- something Chazelle understands and controls well -- sometimes subbing out a piece by Hurwitz in favor of the creaking metal of a spaceship or the beeping alarms of a the telecoms in the dashboard.
“First Man” explores the idea of loss and grief in interesting ways, which pushes the film past what could’ve been another procedural Hollywood space escapade. It is a biopic through and through, but its maintained discussion of the cost of space exploration, its controversy and everything that lead us to the moon makes it a special film.
While “First Man” may not live up to Gosling and Chazelle’s last outing, it is a special film that covers more of what we ought to know about Neil Armstrong’s expedition to where no man has gone before.
“First Man” will be released in theaters Friday, October 12.
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