Director Damien Chazelle returns to the big screen with his new film “First Man,” chronicling Neil Armstrong’s process of becoming the first astronaut to lead a successful mission to the moon.
While a typical blockbuster movie about space could include large-scale special effects or an overwhelming soundtrack, Chazelle took a completely different approach, relying much more on an internal perspective rather than aggrandizing Armstrong and his feat.
(Trailer courtesy of IMDb.)
Whenever Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) finds himself test-piloting planes, landing lunar modules, or inside a space capsule, the action is shown entirely from his point of view. The audience is given a front-row seat to feel what he’s going through: the sounds of each machine, the claustrophobia inside the shuttle, breathing inside his helmet; rarely do we see what it looks like outside the astronaut’s line of sight.
By doing this, Chazelle achieves a much more sensory film than one might imagine, where the visuals aren’t as important as is going through this process directly with Armstrong. What happens outside the shuttle is nothing compared to the job that must be done inside, and that becomes a theme throughout the film: we get to feel how Armstrong devotes his life to his work without paying much attention to what’s outside because it’s simply not important.
A major stand out is the film’s sound mixing. Sound and silence are intertwined to create a unique experience, with Justin Hurwitz’s original score being mixed in with sounds of nature near Armstrong’s home, the rattling and clanking of the space capsule and the absolute silence of space.
Not only are the technical aspects of the film stunning, the screenplay, written by Josh Singer, who wrote the Oscar-nominated “The Post” and best picture winner “Spotlight,” works in perfect harmony with the overall tone of the film. Everything is precise, albeit a little weak.
With such introspective and contemplative characters, sometimes it felt like some dialogue was missing. Here is where sound effects and ambient sound is a big part of the magic of this film, and this combination creates a powerful viewing experience.
Gosling’s performance as Armstrong is impressive, totally different from his usual charming characters. He does an exceptional job at portraying Armstrong as someone incredibly humble and stoic throughout his life, never wanting to dwell on certain feelings for too long and never really connecting with his family emotionally, especially with his young sons.
Claire Foy as Neil’s wife Janet is a scene stealer. Janet is everything Neil is not: communicative, playful and warm, and that opposition plays well into their family dynamic. Janet is a strong woman with bold opinions but is also sensitive enough to pick up on the nuances of Neil’s character, leaving her in charge, more than her husband, of sustaining the family.
“First Man” is probably one of the best films I’ve seen this year. When Oscar nominations roll around, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it receive sweeping nominations for best actor and supporting actress, cinematography, sound editing and mixing, best film and possibly for best adapted screenplay. Make sure to watch this movie while it’s still in theaters as it adds so much to the viewing experience.