Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a civilian engineer, test pilot, and family man with wife Janet (Claire Foy) and 2 children. The higher-ups at the company he flies for view Neil as a bit of a loose cannon when he takes what they view as unnecessary risks with their aircraft. When his youngest child dies of cancer, Neil tries to hide his grief with work, but the company wants to ground him, so he seeks employment elsewhere and goes on to become an astronaut with NASA.
Over the next eight years, Neil climbs the ranks at NASA to become flight commander on missions and puts his engineering skills to use to help the program get the kinks out of their rockets as America powers through the “space race” with the end goal of putting a man on the moon. Along the way, Neil makes friends and loses friends, has happy and sad times with his family, hits emotional highs and lows with the death of his daughter always lingering with him and affecting his work, emotions, and place within his family, often shutting down and trying desperately to escape. It all builds toward the history making Apollo 11 mission.
First Man is a beautiful, awe-inspiring film about an awe-inspiring event that is simply a masterpiece in cinematic storytelling.. This movie is going to get nominated for all the Oscar categories, or at the very least Best Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. If it doesn’t get these nominations, I’ll be shocked.
First the script. Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) should be looking at his second Oscar for what he’s accomplished here, helping elevate the film to become a masterclass in storytelling with minimal dialogue. Too often, movies use dialogue like a crutch, but I’m a firm believer the best productions are those that you could hit the mute button and still understand everything that’s going on. There’s surprisingly little dialogue in this film, but so much is said with so little. There’s constant subtext and subtlety, every scene is a complete story with beginning, middle, and end. With a story spanning so many years it would have been easy to drag in places or become more than a little disjointed by constantly jumping from one segment to the next, but First Man does a phenomenal job towing the line to always have the perfect amount of scene in every scene.
Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) also deserves a nod. Nearly all the choices made in this movie were purposeful, succinct, and executed with precision. The emotion and intensity always run high but never to the point where the audience feels fatigued. The rises and falls are perfectly timed and perfectly performed.
Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) gives what is hands down his greatest performance to date. He’s proven in the past that he can bring the feels, but here he does it with a stoic silence that is often haunting and heartbreaking. He proves that acting isn’t about how you deliver dialogue, but how you deliver thoughts and emotion. Clair Foy (The Crown) also gave an amazing performance, though it’s one that will likely go with little mention in most press about the film. It’s a quieter, subtle performance, but one that can be appreciated if you pay attention to her eyes, her shoulders, the little ticks of frustration and pain. She gets a couple moments to reflect those feelings with dialogue, but again this entire film hits you in the chest with emotional impact even when sparing you dialogue.
There’s a lot of other great actors in supporting roles as well including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll as an obnoxious version of Buzz Aldrin. There’s even a silent cameo from Gotham actor Corey Michael Smith.
My only complaint would be some of the camerawork, as sometimes the handheld camera becomes a bit too much. There are several times it’s used to deliberately make viewers nauseous, to replicate the feeling like you’re in the shaking space craft with the characters. Other times it’s used to make us as scatterbrained and disoriented as the character. I appreciate the technical skill at play here, but often I felt scenes would have been improved with a simple static tripod shot.
Go out and see First Man at your earliest convenience! It’s a nearly perfect film that has been getting a lot of hate because it omits one major aspect of the moon landing: the placing of the American Flag. The director has said this was a purposeful choice as the lunar landing was a human achievement rather than an American one. I can see that point, as well as the opposing side that says no – it was an AMERICAN achievement. But in that moment, I felt that shot that takes the flag-planting’s place is a far more emotionally driven moment and adds to the perfection of the film, even if it’s not the historical moment we wanted.