First Man (2018)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Mining stories from James R. Hansen’s preeminent Neil Armstrong biography of the same name, “First Man” writer Josh Singer has—after 2015’s “Spotlight” and 2017’s “The Post”—once again contributed to one of the best movies of a calendar year. But it took director Damien Chazelle’s keen eye to give this worthwhile biopic the treatment it deserved. It helped that Armstrong’s sons consulted on the project for over a year. Oh, and Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz’s grandiose score, which features a 94-piece orchestra and Hurwitz himself playing a vintage theremin (a staple of 1950s science-fiction and horror). Also, “First Man” wouldn’t have been much without Ryan Gosling. Or Claire Foy. I guess what I’m trying to say is that “First Man” is one of the most well-rounded films of the year.
On paper, “First Man” might seem like an overdue biopic. Plenty of money has been spent telling stories of space travel over the years, including many based on true stories. But no narrative movie has told Neil Armstrong’s story. Not like this. “First Man” puts a lot of focus on the exorbitant number of funerals Neil Armstrong and his wife had to attend throughout the 1960s. Sometimes it’s put in the forefront, but death—whether grief from a recent death or fear of a future one—is hovering in the background of almost every scene. That defines the movie, really. There’s no way of avoiding it. And the ways Neil (Gosling) and Jan (Foy) grapple with that leads to some of the film’s best moments. Ryan Gosling captures Neil Armstrong’s reputation as boring, businesslike, or even bossy. Gosling seemed to do plenty of research. I worried about the British actress and “The Crown” alum Foy capturing the essence of a Midwestern girl like Janet Armstrong, but she gives one of the best supporting performances of the year.
Not to beat a dead horse, but I have to talk more about that Justin Hurwitz score. He presents a whole jukebox full of musical styles. He captures the epicness of space travel, but also the loneliness. He pulls every last bit of emotion from the scenes of grief and sorrow. When Gemini 8 attempts to attach to an unmanned space vessel (the first time it had ever been done), we hear a waltz, something that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Snow White” or “Cinderella.” And when the Eagle starts its slow descent to the moon, the score gets slow and haunting, like something from “Halloween,” to emphasize the careful attention to detail needed to complete this dangerous maneuver. Music is one of the ways “First Man” is the scariest space movie since “Gravity.” Plus there’s a minor (but very, very great) cameo reciting a poem that recognizes that Chazelle knows his 2018 audience and isn’t afraid to show a different side to this mostly-white historical episode.
“First Man” reunites many the major players from the technical side of “La La Land,” including three Oscar-winners, plus nominee several more who were nominated for that 2016 behemoth—including Ryan Gosling, Tom Cross (editing), and Ai-Ling Lee (sound). With “First Man,” they make lightning strike twice.