Over the Moon
By Jason Wiese
One of the most celebrated moments in human history is the landing of Apollo 11 onto the Moon on July 20, 1969. Despite its success, the path that led to the extraordinary achievement was one of tiresome work, frequent failure and, often, infamous tragedy. Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle takes you on a dark and revealing journey through the history of the race to the Moon, seen through the eyes of the first man to walk it, Neil Armstrong.
First Man, based on the book by James R. Hansen, stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, a role that is as suitable for the seasoned actor at face value as it is internally. Gosling has been known to do some of his best acting with very little dialogue letting his stoic thousand-yard stare take the wheel (i.e., 2011’s Drive). Fittingly, many of his best scenes are those that reveal Armstrong as having been the opposite of the heroic, championing reputation he acquired historically following his achievement.
Outside of the spotlight, Armstrong was a soft-spoken, emotionally distant soul with the goal to make history, not achieve fame, being his sole motivation. His troubled personal life is focused on heavily throughout the film in scenes featuring his family that often show the difficulties faced by his resilient wife Janet (Claire Foy) when dealing with the hardships of being married to a man with one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Thanks to the penetrative close-up shots that make up most of the film, these glimpses into Armstrong’s personal flaws often prove to be more tension-ridden than the sequences set in space.
Yet, there is no denying from me that said sequences set off of Earth are some of the most exhilarating acts put to film I have seen all year, and, perhaps, in the last several years. The raw, immersive, vintage-style cinematography by Linus Sandgren (who also collaborated with Chazelle on 2016’s La La Land) is enough to convince you that are watching history unfold before your eyes, often implementing the feeling of documentary.
Chazelle proved with his last two films, 2014’s Whiplash and La La Land, that he is a skilled craftsman in emotional depth and visual storytelling. With First Man, he cements his mastery of that craft. The challenge of any biopic, especially one as prolific as the Moon landing, is to make a story that practically any random citizen could summarize on cue into a compelling narrative. He supersedes that goal with a breathlessly captivating spectacle that is one small step for NASA history and one giant leap for cinema.