First Man Review
One small step for man, one giant leap for Damian Chazelle as he makes his 3rd case to be counted amongst the greatest directors working in world Cinema today. And even though La La Land wasn't quite the masterpiece it was made out to be (at least for me), First Man finds him in scintillating form once again.
A biopic on Neil Armstrong chronicling the moon landing doesn't exactly seem like the most fertile ground for a filmmaker like Chazelle, who does visually spectacular but still grounded pieces with excellent use of music. The biopic as a genre rarely has films with distinct touches and experimentation, rather deciding to stick as closely as possible to their source personality's real life.
Chazelle remains pretty faithful to the original sequence of events from way back when but he manages to find a unique angle to explore. First Man is not a film about one man's passion to walk on the moon but of a man broken by the loss of his daughter and who tries to find solace in space.
What's even better is that he and writer Josh Singer keep this very subtle and understated. The emotional drama here is very restrained and composed as the parents put up a strong front for their kids. But grief isn't just restricted to the period of death. Grief takes you places, drives you in a particular direction for years and years after, and only after having reached the destination is when you get to grieve one last time.
The biggest aid in this powerful yet low key drama is Chazelle and DoP Linus Sandgren's biopic documentary approach. The camera movements are mostly kept to a minimum, except for the very effective and deliberate grainy shaky camera aesthetic. This might just be the shakiest camera I've ever seen but they paint vivid shaky pictures that a calm, stable frame could not have conjured, particularly the beautifully lit and composed long close-ups that give the actors the time and freedom to truly perform.
The massive, magnificent sound design, mixing and editing are very crucial here, with every metallic clink and clank and shudder heard and truly felt with the stunning authenticity of the visuals inside the confines of the tiny space shuttles that the fantastic Production Design team have built. The lack of sound when the big moment arrives was another great, brave decision to not go full sentimental and blare typical soaring inspirational music. Justin Hurwitz once again scores a Chazelle film beautifully, giving every scene, every sequence its own breathing rhythm and lending the film an air of calm sadness.
Gosling is better than anything I've ever seen him done. No prosthetics or makeups or pronounced accents needed, he does it all with his eyes. The rootedness that he brings to the character of Neil Armstrong is astonishing, especially for anyone who hasn't seen the real man walking and talking in real life and are expecting a charming, heroic presence instead. His understanding of the internal torment of the man says more to the audience than any external stylings or long monologues could, particularly in the big moon landing scene and the one moment when he sits in a room alone and cries at a funeral.
Claire Foy brings so much more to the cliche trophy wife mould, especially using her massive eyes and the subtle twitches of her mouth depending on the mood of her character. Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll are interesting choices for their respective parts.
So, how do you reinvent the space film after having been gifted so many brilliant ones recently? How do you top Gravity? Damien Chazelle shows the path, proving that space is limitless and that there's always new ways to tell a simple story in the most effective manner without encroaching on another's territory. First Man is a thrilling, moving film and as insights into the minds of the greats go, you can't delve any deeper.
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