First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, takes a bold direction with one of history’s most well-known and beloved figures. Rather than a pleasant, uplifting exploration of the life of Neil Armstrong, First Man pulls back the curtain and explores the darker, far more depressing story of a man who truly lived a life full of struggle and pain. However, with a solemn atmosphere and a hefty feeling runtime, I do think this is a film that some audience goers might struggle with. So, let’s explore all that First Man has to offer, and the methods it employs to do so, to see if it’s a film you’ll be wanting to see.
First Man doesn’t just explore the moments that led to Neil Armstrong – played by Ryan Gosling – being the first man to set foot on the moon, but instead it dives deep into the troubled – sometimes unforgiving – personal life of the man and how he overcame them.
Walking into First Man, my friend and I had preconceived opinions about the type of film we were about to watch. We were expecting a film that was light on substance and would lean heavily into a more cookie cutter tone; with scenes of American flags flapping in the wind, patriotic music stirring during moments of achievement and a general approach that painted everything in a light, uplifting tone. What I watched was something far, far different, and something that still resonates in my memory right now.
Taking on a far more sombre tone, First Man is actually one of the most complex, poignant and dignified looks at grief and the hurdles that have to be overcome during such personal hardships, that I feel I’ve seen in a film. And it just so happens to be explored through the life and experiences of Neil Armstrong during the lead up to him being the first person to step onto the moon.
To put it simply, the tonal and atmospheric choice that Chazelle chose when tackling this film is infinitely bold and in result one of the most surprising and effective films I’ve seen this year. As I already pointed out, I was expecting a pretty by-the-books type of experience with First Man. I thought we’d get a little backstory setting up what made Neil Armstrong such a smart choice for such a dangerous mission. Then we’d explore the journey of the trials and failures as NASA tried to get to the moon, and then we’d wrap it all up with a hero shot of Neil Armstrong standing there on moon saying those iconic words.
Now, some of that is definitely a part of the film. More or less all those elements are touched upon in some way. But the way in which the film goes about it has it feeling far less like an incredible feet of human ingenuity and achievement, and much more a study of the capability of a single person and what personal hardships they can fight through to achieve something far beyond them – something for humanity.
Which brings me to the film’s primary focus: Neil Armstrong. I’ll admit, walking into this film, I didn’t know much about the man beyond that he was the first man to set foot on the moon. His history and personal life were a mystery to me. So it came as much of a surprise to learn about the impossibly difficult, life changing loss he’d had to deal with. Those losses and the need to try to come back from them and not give up are what I think truly define the man in my head now.
The technical prowess and understanding to build a craft that can leave our planet and travel to our moon is something I’ll never be able to comprehend. The incredible achievement in doing such a thing is fascinating to learn about and read about. It is a tangible, visual representation of evolution for us as a species. You can sit there in a classroom and explore it for hours. You can make films that touch upon it in infinite ways and always have it feel engaging. But to make such an incredible achievement almost take a backseat in favour of a person and their personal struggles is perhaps even more fascinating is again… bold.
That’s why I think First Man is such an achievement. It’s handling of Neil Armstrong and his story. All of the filmmaking elements that were employed to bring it screaming to life on the big screen. Everything comes together in this film and puts its focus on a person that is so much more than what I thought him to be.
But… here’s where I think problems may arise for First Man. Stripping away all the humanity and introspective exploration of this film for a moment. If you purely look at it from a technical side, I think general audiences may struggle with this film. You see, all those expectations I talked about – the flags swaying in the wind and the patriotic music, etc. – I think a number of movie goers may want that… may prefer that. First Man is no easy watch.
It’s a film that slowly digs into your emotional psyche. It punishes your caring side and it can at times leave you completely overwhelmed with the hardships faced by Mr Armstrong, his family and his fellow astronauts. For me – being the emotional masochist that I am – I found that it pulled me in closer to the story and the characters. I saw them as people and thus was able to find a connection to them on a deeper level. But people looking for something easier and more uplifting will be left feeling things they might not want to have felt. When you add to that a moderately slow pace, a long runtime and a tone that almost never drifts into a lighter shade, First Man can leave you feeling a little defeated. And so, I will be very interested to see a general audience reaction to this film during its time in the cinema.
But there’s one element to First Man that I don’t think anyone will disagree on and that’s the quality in the film’s score, its cinematography and in the astoundingly detailed work by the art department. All of these elements captured my attention… captured my love. But it was Justin Hurwitz’s score that captured them the most. In the quieter, more reflective moments it beautifully complimented the scene, and in the more dramatically intense moments it brilliantly punched up the tension. It’s a diverse score that traversed many difficult scenes and always found the right musical message for the often-difficult moment.
People going into this film looking for something meaningful… something that makes a mark; that is more than just another simple and forgettable biopic will receive something that will stay with them. Chazelle captures something poignant with his film and with the help of the always brilliant Gosling is able to deliver a film that now sits easily in one of my standouts of the year. It’s one I want to return to – knowing what I know – so that I can look even closer at what it does, what it says and how it goes about saying it.
First Man has been a film that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. It has continually found its way back into my immediate thoughts and I haven’t been able to (nor have I wanted to) shake it from my memory. It is a truly moving film that has left an affective impact on me.
It is also a film that proves that its director, Damien Chazelle is more than just a guy who can make a musically infused film revolving around jazz. First Man proves that Chazelle has a very exciting career ahead of him and it’s one – now more than ever – that I’m eager to follow.
Without a single doubt in my mind, I fully recommend, First Man. Go into this film completely open-minded and then let the journey it has for you be one you’re open to sharing in. This film won’t make it easy, but it will be totally worth it, I promise.
I’d absolutely love to hear what you thought of First Man and my review of it, so please leave any opinions or feedback you may in the comments section down below. If you liked what you read then please consider following both/either my blog and/or my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll bring things to a close now by offering you my sincere thanks for dedicating some of your time to reading my silly little review, I appreciate it more than you could ever know. Thank you and have a wonderful day!