History only provides us with faces and names. There are countless books and research written on these individuals but unless you actively pursue these works, you remain fairly ignorant to the lives of those who shaped the world into what it is now. They become nothing but another name to memorize, known by what they did, but not who they were. This is why biopics are so insightful. They offer glimpses into these people’s lives behind the scenes: who they were, who they loved, how they felt about the history they were making.
Like all genres, however, the quality of biopics ranges greatly. Many times you get soulless, corporate crowd-pleasers that paint the subject’s life in the most ideal light without showing any of their flaws and hardships in hopes to get more butts in seats, tarnishing the original visions of those who wanted to create the film in the first place. Sometimes, however, you get a film like First Man.
First Man follows astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) through his years serving NASA leading up to his historic moon-landing in 1969. While the space-race serves as the backdrop, the film focuses more on Armstrong’s personal struggles and triumphs through the time. During his time with the Gemini and Apollo programs, the astronaut had to deal not only with lost loved-ones in his past, but also watching his peers and friends lose their lives to catastrophic accidents and miscalculations. This, along with the gripping tension of his own missions, do an incredible number on his marriage and his own will power, as Armstrong does all he can to reach that final small step.
First Man shows director Damien Chazelle stepping outside the musical realm, proceeding Whiplash and La La Land. As an avid fan of both films and Chazelle’s direction in particular, I was interested to see how he would tackle a film not revolving around song and dance. While the film is quite different from his first two projects, Chazelle’s unique style is not lost. Like Whiplash, First Man is shot mainly in handheld close-ups, giving the entire film a sense of claustrophobia. This not only mirrors the confined spaces of NASA’s planes and rockets, but also the enormous pressure forced upon Neil from the space race itself, and the lives lost to it. Chazelle’s signature fast-paced editing gives the film a lively tempo despite its over two-hour runtime. The special effects of the film are nothing less than phenomenal. There wasn’t a second that I wasn’t convinced I was watching real spaceflight.
Ryan Gosling brought an incredible performance to the film. To play a man as reserved and somber as Armstrong requires an incredible amount of subtly, which really shines in Gosling’s performance. To have an actor that famous absolutely fall into a role to a point where I see nothing but Armstrong is commendable. Claire Joy as Janet Armstrong (Neil’s wife) also brings an incredible supporting role. Neil’s stoicism and Janet’s compassion play off very well, and there is a particular monologue where Joy’s performance may have jerked a view tears.
As far as gripes, they are few and far between. There was a particular melody that felt very distracting and out of place, but was repeated several times throughout the film. I’m surprised to say that one of my only complaint from a Damien Chazelle film involves music. There is also one shot of the Apollo 11 launch that looks a little fake. Other than that, First Man is an entertaining biopic that portrays an honest and intricate depiction of a man surrounded by the pressures of death, society, and marital tension.