Jeff's Reviews

Thoughts on every movie I've ever seen.

First Man (2018)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler

Author

An engaging portrait of space history’s most interesting guy, and an authentic capture of the sights and sounds of early space travel. The subject matter is treated with reverence and authenticity. Anyone who enjoyed The Right Stuff would appreciate this one.

I really like how this not a story about going to the moon, but a personal story about Neil. Exploring his emotional journey, one that the papers didn’t cover, as we take his more famous physical journey gives the character and film real depth. There is debate about whether or not they should have shown Neil planting the American flag on the moon. They also didn’t show the parades and celebration back home, and not a single cliché shot of a newspaper headline. But I think they did the right thing here. This is not a story about the nationalism or the American space program or even the moon landing. It’s a a story about Neil.

The poignant thing about this story is that there is no true villain. Most movies feature a bad guy who helps drive the drama of the story, but in this movie, everyone’s pretty much getting along. I can’t remember the last time I saw that. Instead of a human bad guy, the real villain here seems to be the dangers of early space travel.

The rest of the conflict is generated by Neil’s emotional detachment, which made the relationship with his wife difficult and made many scenes almost painful to watch. Flashbacks of his daughter and moments by himself in the backyard suggest that there’s a small flame flickering inside, but he has trouble letting anyone feel its warmth. But the other side to this is that his emotional detachment may also be what made Neil such a great pilot and what gave Neil the opportunity to become an astronaut and go to the moon.

Gosling’s understated intensity makes his portrait of this reluctant, emotionally detached, stoic hero feel authentic and believable. Claire Foy turns in a fantastic, perhaps even Oscar-worthy, performance as his wife. As for everyone else, I really like the casting choices. Most period movies make the mistake of filling historical scenes with good-looking people caked in make-up. But if you look at old photos and file footage, not everyone was good looking. You’ll see lots of weirdly dressed, funny-looking people with crappy glasses and bad teeth. In this one, scenes are filled with people like that. Careful attention has also been paid to the dialogue, with speech patterns and expressions that are just foreign enough to remind you that we really are in a different time. Great period sets, costumes, make-up make it feel like we were there.

Really well-shot, with wide shots and close-ups to prove that we aren’t being cheated by cheap effects or props. Cramped cockpit and capsule shots must have been difficult logistically but really help to put us there with the pilots and astronauts. Wonderful effects on the moon, with beautiful shots on the reflective visors of their helmets and a really effective use of silence in space and on the moon. My only quibble is that continued use of the handheld camera felt unnecessary. It works for those action sequences when, subconsciously, one assumes that it must be hard to keep a camera still. But when you’re shooting a dramatic scene in a suburban home, it becomes annoying and distracting and feels manipulative.

Chazelle is a quality director. He’s putting together a very interesting body of work.

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