#REVIEW: “FIRST MAN”
Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Oscar-winning Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man lands in theatres this weekend after screening upwards of 13 times last month during TIFF. The Film chronicles the story of legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), from his early days in the NASA Space Program right up to becoming the first man in history to walk on the moon.
From a purely technical standpoint, First Man is a monumental cinematic achievement. Every visual element is running on overdrive here, working together beautifully to create a stunning visual experience. Chazelle uses different film formats to tell specific sections of the Story, and he does it so well that you likely will not notice the switching formats. Those styles are complemented by Chazelle framing each scene through a cinéma vérité lens. Each moment is captured and made to feel like an authentic document of what was really happening at the time – and that means the training and space bound scenes are filmed to be just as queasy and shaky as they likely were in real life (and for some reason, all the grounded scenes of family barbeques and domestic turmoil are distractingly shaky too). The sound is even better and blasts through the speakers in a way that has not been equaled by any film this year. The level of detail is so specific in every instance that it terrifies me to even consider how much effort would be needed to hone in on this level of minutia.
I will not spoil how Chazelle depicts Apollo 11 landing on the moon, but will say that it demands to be experienced in IMAX. I was left floored and breathless. There are no words I can string together to properly describe what he has committed to celluloid with First Man. All I can say is that the landing is worth the price of admission alone. And yes, the American flag does make an appearance.
But for how brilliant Chazelle’s visual master class is, his storytelling and characterizations left me feeling cold, empty and frequently restless. The Film is very much about Armstrong’s determination and devotion towards a singular against all odds goal. Chazelle of course, made the brilliantly thrilling Whiplash and the phenomenally poignant La La Land – which are about characters with the exact same mentalities. But the difference between those films and First Man (beyond this story explicitly being true), is that they have a spark and a compelling enthusiasm that propels them through their running times. First Man lacks that spark and any form of compelling notion. It appears in some moments, but others end up feeling like emotionally detached recreations. Much like Christopher Nolan’s exquisitely-made Dunkirk, you quickly start caring more about whether the mission will succeed and forget caring about the characters. And considering First Man’s emphasis on how Armstrong grapples with all the death plaguing his life, that is not a great place for the audience to frequently find itself.
Acting wise, Gosling is great as always, playing Armstrong with subtle and quiet conviction. He’s practically mastered the strong ‘man of few words’ archetype and his work here is just another reason why he is one of the most talented actors in the new Hollywood. Claire Foy, best known for her Golden Globe and Emmy-winning work on The Crown, is terrific as Armstrong’s wife Janet. She brings a ferocious tenacity to every scene and acts circles around everyone. But she is underwritten and underutilized, frequently playing second fiddle to the astronauts and NASA personnel around her character. Supporting turns from Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit and especially Corey Stoll are all well done, but are never afforded the time to shine the same way Gosling and the rockets do.
First Man is astounding visually and an absolute must-see on the biggest screen you can possibly find. What Chazelle has crafted here must be seen to be believed and will leave you breathless. It’s just a shame that he sacrifices his story and characters in his pursuit of celluloid perfection.
Universal Pictures Canada release FIRST MAN in theatres on Friday, October 10, 2018.