By Luke Elisio
Damien Chazelle’s First Man is one small step towards Oscar gold, one giant leap for the director’s already impressive resume.
The biopic, starring Canada’s leading man Ryan Gosling, recounts the personal and professional life of astronaut Neil Armstrong leading up to the legendary 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
For those who doubted that the historically-musical Chazelle (director of 2014’s Whiplash and 2016’s almost-best-picture-winner La La Land) would be incapable of delivering a high-stakes thrill ride, rest assured that within the film’s first five minutes, he more than delivers. During those five minutes, Chazelle lifts audiences off the ground with a POV-shot test flight that is as exhilarating as it is realistic. To capture that indescribable sensation of rocketing to outer space is true movie magic. If you’re not watching this film in a theatre seat gazing up at the big screen, you’re not watching it properly.
The well-paced drama is the antithesis of Chazelle’s previous films, trading in themes of artistry and romance for two hours of utterly realistic tension and anguish. Chazelle manages to capture that realism by expertly utilizing the narrative tool of showing rather than telling. Whether it’s the heart-breaking look of mourners as they watch a casket descend into the ground, or a NASA physicist humorously assigning astronauts a simple 600 pages of equations to memorize, Chazelle knows how to punctuate a scene with masterful subtlety.
The star of the film, in every sense, is Gosling as Neil Armstrong. Completely stripped of any glamour or charm, Gosling’s portrayal as an everyday man who is called to exhibit emotional and physical strength of the greatest caliber, is mesmerizing to watch. If anything, see this film simply for Gosling’s gut-wrenchingly realistic portrayal of a man wrestling for control over his life while simultaneously writing his name in the stars as an American hero. Gosling will pull you in with all the force of a black hole.
Get it? Cause’ space.
Sharing the screen with Gosling is Claire Foy as Janet Shearon, Armstrong’s first wife. Foy displays an incredible range as she portrays a woman who celebrates in her husband’s greatest achievements, supports him through tragedy, and berates him when she knows he is wrong. For those familiar with Foy mostly for her role as Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown, she is physically unrecognizable. However, she brings the same unyielding strength and heart to Janet as she does to the Queen. A nomination for Best Supporting Actress is undoubtedly hers. This is easily a game-changing role for Foy and hopefully Chazelle will include her in his troupe of repertory actors.
In an era dominated by movies filled with video-game-level amounts of CGI, it was transcendent to watch a director utilize practical effects and sleight of hand filmmaking to craft a truly breathtaking piece of film. With First Man, Chazelle proves himself to be a director that studios should just unequivocally trust. Give him the money to make whatever kind of film he wants, and audiences will be anything but disappointed.