Film Review: First Man (2018)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Josh Singer
Produced by: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle

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Damien Chazelle does it again.

After Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle goes all out with this space drama-thriller about Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon. Chazelle crafts a cinematic experience filled with visceral immediacy and technical prowess; I could only think of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) as a film that was able to place the audience right within the experience of the characters.

Grieving the death of his daughter, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) joins NASA’s Project Gemini. After being beaten by the Soviet Union in every milestone in the ongoing Space Race, NASA is fixed on achieving a feat no one has ever done: land a human being on the moon. After several mishaps in the tests conducted, Armstrong is summoned to command the flight, causing worry for his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

Chazelle is no stranger to orchestrating the different aspects of filmmaking to a maximum, whether be it the sharp editing and abrasive sound mixing of Whiplash or the visual spectacle of La La Land to go with its entrancing music. His work in First Man is no exception. Right from the very first scene, the film immediately grabs attention and never lets go.

Much has been said about its almost-documentary style filmmaking, and it works for the film’s benefit. Cinematography, film editing, sound mixing, sound editing, and musical score, all handled by frequent Chazelle collaborators, come together in creating an unflinching immersion. The result is a film that effectively taps on the senses. It is mindblowing to behold.

The screenplay written by Josh Singer articulates the emotional beats of the narrative with confidence and conciseness. Taking pivotal moments within a decades span of Armstrong’s life is a tough ordeal, and the screenplay manages to pin down these with striking grittiness. This film does not always rely on obvious emotions (which I personally I am into), but the screenplay is a carefully calibrated study of Armstrong.

Ryan Gosling proves himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. He adds another work in the string of potent performances he has delivered within this decade. His interpretation of Neil Armstrong is unlike most of biopic performances. This is a performance that does not rely on easily noticeable tics. Instead, it is all internalized, even painfully at times.

His seemingly impenetrable façade is well-rooted in his character. He sheds tears in two scenes, both almost hidden away from the camera. But this is where his selflessness as an actor shines – he opts for a more emotionally authentic representation of the man than relying on big emotional scenes that amaze.

Claire Foy amazes with her role as Janet, Armstrong’s wife. After two seasons of phenomenal work in the Netflix series The Crown, Foy is long overdue for a film career and she shines in this role. Any fear of Foy being reduced to the longsuffering wife stereotype is immediately shattered once she enters the film.

Her commanding demeanor and determined attitude defines her performance and elevates her work. Janet is not a simple supportive wife who helplessly waits. She rises to the occasion when pushed, and she is to be taken seriously and not mansplained, not even by the brilliant men of NASA. In two striking scenes, Foy claims her place in this man’s world.

Commendable work from Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, and Olivia Hamilton populate this world of 1960s Space Race. Noteworthy production design, costume design, and visual effects complete the film’s visual panache.

Damien Chazelle reaches new heights, and he is a cinematic force to stay.

Grade: A-

6th TFO Awards: Best Achievement in Directing

The nominees for Best Achievement in Directing are:

  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu – Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  • David Fincher – Gone Girl
  • Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Xavier Dolan – Mommy
  • Damien Chazelle – Whiplash

And The Final Oscar goes to…

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Finalists (6-12): Ava DuVernay – Selma | Christopher Nolan – Interstellar | J.C. Chandor – A Most Violent Year | Richard Ayoade – The Double | Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher | Amat Escalante – Heli | Krzysztof Skonieczny – Hardkor Disko

Semi-finalists (13-20): Laura Poitras – Citizenfour | Alberto Rodríguez Librero – Marshland | Damián Szifron – Wild Tales | David Mackenzie – Starred Up | Abderrahmane Sissako – Timbuktu | Richard Linklater – Boyhood | James Gray – The Immigrant | Elçin Musaoğlu – Nabat

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PREVIOUSLY POSTED: Opening Remarks | Original Screenplay | Adapted Screenplay | Production Design – Contemporary | Production Design – Period | Casting | Costume Design – Period | Costume Design – Contemporary | Actor in a Supporting Role | Visual Effects | Makeup and Hairstyling | Sound Editing | Sound Mixing | Actress in a Supporting Role | Music – Original Song | Music – Adapted or Song Score | Music – Original Score | Cinematography | Film Editing | Ensemble | Animated Feature | Documentary Feature