Having another film with a score filled with jazz music is not reason enough to consider Damien Chazelle to be an auteur, but the themes of First Man connect to the filmmaker’s last two works, despite each existing in a genre of their own. First Man is a biopic, through-and-through, but one that doesn’t fall into the usual narrative trappings. On top of that, First Man contains further evidence of Chazelle’s worthiness as an Academy Award-winning director, from the spectacular camera work to the effectively nuanced performances he gets from the capable cast. Every year, there is at least one film that is shamelessly ignored during award season. This year we have several (in order to make room for the films that made a lot of money), but I would put First Man at the top of the list for under-appreciated films.
Although First Man certainly belongs in the biopic genre, it purposefully limits the scope to only cover a certain portion of Neil Armstrong’s life. We don’t see any of his early life, instead focusing on the ten year period leading up to the historic Apollo 11 mission. Painstakingly realistic in its depiction, there is a raw immediacy to the way Chazelle tells the story of Armstrong’s journey to the moon. We get all of the details of the mission training, as well as the painful losses along the way. Elliptical in its storytelling, First Man allows us to feel immersed in this era and NASA’s protocols without being pandered to or underestimating the intelligence of the viewer. It is also far more interested in what makes man decide to take these risks rather than about the technological advancements that got us there.
A large part of what makes First Man work so well is the cast, starting with Ryan Gosling in another career accomplishment as Armstrong. Just as effective is Claire Foy as his strong wife, Janet, and the cast is also filled with an ensemble of dedicated actors stepping in to play the real-life men and women who sacrificed for the mission to put a man on the moon. At the top of this list is Jason Clarke as Ed White and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, but there are many more. First Man does an excellent job of showing the Herculean effort this mission took, and manages to do so while also keeping Armstrong the focus of the narrative. In a lot of ways, Gosling plays Armstrong with walls up, pointing to the loss of his daughter as the reason. Even if only for two brief moments, the film allows the audience the privilege of seeing Armstrong in the quiet moments that these barriers come down.
Along with the performances, the way that Chazelle chooses to film First Man greatly impacts the effectiveness of the narrative. Shot in mostly telephoto lens, the impact is a feeling that the audience is spying on intimate conversations. This also allows for the actors to perform without the constant intrusion of the camera, and it is incredibly effective. There is also an intensity in the shakiness of the camera in the action, contrasted by the stillness of the moon sequence shot with IMAX cameras.
The IMAX sequence is easily the most impressive part of the 4K Ultra HD edition of the film. The colors are more vibrant in the rest of the film, but there is also a large grain in the visuals to make it appear more dated. The only part of the film that doesn’t have this is the IMAX moon sequence, which looks absolutely pristine in 4K, even if it doesn’t really match the visual style of the rest of the film. The special features on the disc include a handful of deleted scenes, along with several featurettes and a commentary track with Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer and editor Tim Cross. Many of the featurettes also go into the efforts to accurately capture the details of NASA in the filmmaking process. The package comes with a Blu-ray disc that also contains all of the special features, as well as a digital copy of the movie.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 9/10
Historical Significance: 8/10
Special Features: 8.5/10