Tuesday, October 2, 2018

‘First Man’ Review: The Journey to the Moon is a Lonely One

As the Gemini VIII space shuttle was launched into orbit, flying listlessly through the vacuum of space, I too found myself sitting in the darkness, but in a movie theater. Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong sits rigid and steadfast in his seat, this is his first spaceflight, and he carefully operates controls. I operate the controls of my reclining seat, returning upright, but trying to sit comfortably in this moment is a thankless task. The only way to experience this is to sit up straight, digging my fingers into the armrests. Suddenly, after docking successfully with the Agena target vehicle, the Gemini VIII falls into a deadly spin. The two astronauts aboard are moments away from passing out. Armstrong starts activating the craft's cold gas thrusters, trying to course-correct. Every little jet of gas firing out into space correlates perfectly with a sort, shallow breath of my own. I am in this moment, and despite this being a true story, a story that we already know the end of, I am in it and I am terrified for these men. This is the strength of Damien Chazelle's First Man.

After becoming the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Director for his film La La Land in 2016, First Man is director Damien Chazelle's follow-up. After making his first three films centered around the world of music, First Man was quite a departure for the young filmmaker.

Not as present in La La Land, but Chazelle's Whiplash proved the director as a master of building tension. Whiplash, a movie about a jazz drummer trying to make it big under the tutelage of an intense teacher, doesn't sound like an inherently tense film. But in Chazelle's hands it is borderline horror. One thing that Chazelle seems to understand more than any other filmmaker is the powerful mania of a person that has a singular vision. He knows what it is to push your health and relationships aside in pursuit of a dream. And he brings that same knowledge to First Man.

For those of you that somehow don't know, First Man is a biopic about the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. And, really, even if you live under a rock and don't know this piece of history, the crux of the film is right there in the title. He is the first man to walk on the moon. Before you even sit down you know that he makes it. And even so, you will leave the theater emotionally exhausted and sweating.

What you might not know is that Neil Armstrong had an infant daughter that died of a malignant tumor on her brain stem. This is what First Man leads with, and is the driving force of Neil Armstrong's journey. He goes from being a devoted family man, a man that turns down a job because it meant leaving his family, to being a man that willingly leaves his family behind to go as far away as is humanly possible. The film presents this as the easy choice for Neil. It is easy for Neil to make the seemingly impossible journey to the moon, as opposed to staying on Earth and dealing with his grief, and reconciling with his wife.

The moon does loom large over this film. It hangs ominously in the backgrounds of shots, but Armstrong is also fixated on it, looking up to it like a deity in difficult moments. But the journey to the moon is ultimately not the journey that Armstrong sees himself as taking. He sees this has something he has to do, a formality if nothing else. His real journey is the journey he takes back to his family. The distance between the Earth and the Moon is nothing compared to the distance between Neil and his loved ones. It just takes a trip to the moon , and a look back at a pale blue dot, for him to realize what truly matters to him.

But it is for these reasons that First Man didn't affect me on the emotional level that I had expected it to. It's an easy and often exploitative thing to just make people emotionally affected by just showing heroic people doing heroic things. True stories help this along. Surface-level films like American Sniper are masters of this trick, but First Man is nothing so cheap. This is a very cold film, down to its color palette, to the way it's shot, to the acting. The warm things, the things that you want to see, the things that you want to cry about, come after the credits start rolling, once Neil is home and the house lights come on. Your experience watching the film mirrors Neil's journey in the film.

Ryan Gosling delivers incredible work here. He has fallen into his stride, and found his strength in delivering very understated, seething performances. Like his work in Blade Runner 2049 and Only God Forgives, in First Man, Gosling is able to embody a character that bottles things up until he bursts. I think no one is better at playing disaffected, even when the character is really screaming inside.

Claire Foy (The Crown) plays Janet Armstrong, Neil's wife, and also brings a powerhouse performance to the screen. Although given much less to do in the film, she is the emotional anchor. Everything that is sliding right off of Neil is sticking to Janet. She is seeing her husband grow more distant, and watching all the his fellow astronauts die around him. She knows that, despite her husband's emotional distance now, there is still a chance that the man she loves comes back to her. That can't happen if he dies.

As far as I'm concerned, Chazelle has delivered a consecutive masterpiece. This man is so young, and already performing on a level that most people will only ever aspire to. First Man is an incredible spectacle, and I think it's going to play big in the coming awards season.

I give First Man a 5 out of 5. It releases in theaters and IMAX on October 12.