“First Man” is directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) and stars Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049, The Notebook) as Neil Armstrong. This movie takes place during the events of Apollo 11, the most famous of the Apollo missions. Many people going to see this movie probably know the story, Neil Armstrong and some other astronauts attempt to land on the moon, but this movie explains a little bit more than that. It goes into the personal and family life of Neil Armstrong, and shows off all the preparation that went into executing such a daring mission.
I don’t know if many people reading this remember, or even knew when this movie was first announced, but my first time hearing about it was around January 2017 if I recall correctly. As if the concept alone of the moon landing was interesting enough, it was to be helmed by one of my favorite directors working today, Damien Chazelle.
Damien Chazelle is known for his work on “Whiplash,” but in my eyes, his popularity skyrocketed during the release of “La La Land.” That movie is a 2016 musical which went on to win 7 Golden Globes, which also happened to be the total number of awards the movie happened to be nominated for. Speaking of awards, the movie went on to receive 13 Oscar nominations, 6 wins, which doesn’t happen to include the rare instance of the kinda sorta maybe victory of Best Picture. So kids, if you are reading this and think that your dream will never come true, if you think you’ll never be able to colonize Mars one day, just remember this. Two films were labeled Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards!
When it comes to “First Man,” this is actually a really interesting movie though because out of all the feature-length films Damien Chazelle has done as a director, this is actually the first one he doesn’t have a screenplay credit for. Granted, this movie was actually written by Josh Singer, who also wrote the screenplay for 2015’s “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Even so, the fact that this was not written by Chazelle himself made me slightly worried. I was beginning to wonder if I didn’t like this movie, it might partially lead to me thinking Chazelle is another Brad Bird. He’s a fantastic director, but only fantastic when it comes to directing his own material. Having seen this movie, that worry is meaningless, because I’ll be honest with you, this is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. In fact, when putting Chazelle into the conversation, it’s my second favorite film of his directly behind “Whiplash.”
Just about everything in “First Man” worked. The acting, the directing, the score, the entertainment value, the sound work, the effects, everything just felt as if it was created by a god. I went to see “First Man” in IMAX, which I will get to, but I must say, regardless of whether or not you went to see “First Man” in IMAX, I must tell you, this is one of those films that you have to get off your ass and see in the theater. This joins some recent films like “Dunkirk,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Ready Player One,” and “A Quiet Place” on the list of films to watch on the big screen. What the crew did for this movie in terms of cinematography is genius.
In all honesty, part of me wonders how many people will notice or care to notice, some of the images in the movie, are incredibly fuzzy or grainy and it just feels like they were gathering dust before processing. Let me just have you know that this movie was shot on 16mm film. Most of the scenes early on in the films, that take place on Earth, looked somewhat old-timey. And I honestly thought that fit, because believe it or not, I don’t know how much you guys know about Neil Armstrong’s life, but when this movie started it was basically a soap opera. For some people, I imagine that will take them out of the movie, but to me, it fit because for one thing, you can’t alter history. It partially comes into play when developing Armstrong as a character. Also, it showcases the excellent acting ability of Ryan Gosling.
Ryan Gosling is the star of the movie and he seems to have a decent range as an actor. You can put him in a movie as a sex doll that girls will dream about. You can put him in a movie where he happens to be somewhat passionate and upbeat. And you can put him in a movie where maybe he happens to be intentionally robotic. To call Ryan Gosling my favorite actor of all time is a stretch, but he is a true force in the industry. And when it comes to his portrayal of Neil Armstrong, overall it is really good, but I have a couple minor complaints. For one thing, Neil in this movie is incredibly stoic at times. If he was as stoic in this movie as he was in real life, then whatever, then my complaint will be taken off. That’s not to say he doesn’t show any emotion at all. He’s actually seen in the beginning of the film shedding tears. It’s a great performance, but part of me wonders how much Neil Armstrong would say it’s “him” had he been alive to see this picture come to life. Ah well, where’s Buzz Aldrin when you need him? Another minor complaint I have is a bit nitpicky, but Neil Armstrong was born and raised American, and yet they cast the very idea of the “Sexy Canadian Boy” Halloween costume. Again, nitpicky. It does not however change the fact that the interpretation of Armstrong is still a top-notch performance. Plus, it’s still a pasty white dude, so it’s not like they’re trying to make Neil Armstrong a woman or black and erase history by doing so.
Speaking of minor casting issues, I also should point out that Claire Foy (Unsane, The Crown), who plays Neil’s wife, Janet, is British. Let me just point out that much like Neil Armstrong, Janet was born and raised American. It’s still a great performance and BY FAR the best one in the entire film. I really hope Foy receives a Best Actress nomination. Several scenes from her add tons of emotional weight to the film and I can imagine in a way, back in the 1960s, her character would not only encapsulate the thoughts of just herself, but those people who are out of Neil’s family who have to watch the crew go to the moon. Granted, it’s a lot worse for her, because she can lose her husband, but still.
All my complaints in this movie are legit complaints for sure, but in reality, they are easily forgivable because they fall under the classification of “minor” or “nitpicky.” One small complaint I have is something that occurs towards the end of the film that I wonder if it actually happened. Without going into spoilers, when Neil Armstrong gets to the moon, he has an object with him that happens to be very significant. As far as I’m aware, there is no concrete evidence to this happening. If it did happen, cool. But if it didn’t, maybe it added some emotion, but there would also be that part of me who thinks that shouldn’t even be in the movie.
Speaking of objects on the moon, let’s get controversial! One report that has been going around about “First Man” is that there is no scene showing the American flag being planted on the moon. As someone who witnessed this movie, let me confirm to you all, THIS IS TRUE. Many conservatives for what I know are upset about this and they’re hoping this movie fails. Based on the box office for the opening weekend, it lost big time to “A Star Is Born” and “Venom,” which retained its first place spot for the second week in a row. By the way, f*ck “Venom.” I will say though, this is kind of a spoiler, but it’s not really going to affect your viewing experience, at least I don’t think. If it’s any consolation, the American flag is shown on the moon during the film. I can understand why people would be upset about this, but honestly I don’t really care. I live in America, and this is an American achievement, but at the end of the day, “First Man” is supposed to be a film, not a propaganda piece. Also, if you like your flags so much, let me just remind you that the astronauts have American flags on their spacesuits, and there’s actually a scene where an American flag is being raised. Also, I’ll be honest, I’m glad that someone like Damien Chazelle directed this movie as opposed to someone like Michael Bay. I say that because there would be an American flag overload to the point where the planting scene would involve Neil Armstrong breaking the laws of physics, jumping into space bumping into one planet into the next like a pinball. Once that’s all done, he flies back to the moon striking the surface with the flag like Link did to Ganon in “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.” Also for fun, we cut to explosions happening in Russia therefore symbolizing their loss in the space race. There are reasons why I wouldn’t mind seeing the flag planted in the film, but the direction Damien Chazelle took with the movie worked very well and made me not care about seeing the planting of the American flag. The emotional journey mattered more in the end to me than seeing a country’s representation, even if I do happen to be a part of that country. Plus, you also have to consider international audiences. How will they respond to this? I don’t know. There’s always room for experimentation. Even so, I guess it is not wrong to assume that international audiences will be able to recognize the accomplishment that the US made with the moon landing, but at the same time, since it is not their accomplishment, they’d probably find the scene less relatable. I really think I should do a separate post someday on why it might be a good idea to have the planting of the American flag shown in the movie and why it might not be a good idea. Now let’s move onto…
Before we actually dive into my thoughts on the space scenes, I gotta say that I saw this movie with my mother and sister. I can understand why some people would have certain complaints but one that really stuck out to me is that my mother said the movie spends too much time in space. I find this amusing because “First Man,” after all, is a space movie. I’m not saying it’s invalid, each to their own, but I thought the space time was fine. And trust me, it does spend a bit of time. Aside from focusing on Apollo 11, the movie spends some time focusing on Gemini 8. I’m willing to bet this is where my mother complained. Although I appreciated that the movie decided to include that, because this establishes not only the dangers for anyone who has to go to space, but as far as Neil Armstrong goes, he had to experience said dangers before moving onto another dangerous mission that is amazingly daring, to the point where he might never see his wife and kids again. One thing I also admire about this scene is the music, which is very reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” when they play “The Blue Danube.” ALSO, THE SOUND WORK IS TOP-NOTCH! If this movie doesn’t win best director at the Academy Awards, it better get something in the sound categories because it is something worth hearing. While the movie is great overall when it comes to sound, in fact some of it reminded me of “Gravity,” one of the best scenes when it comes to sound comes after the lunar lander touches down on the moon.
In terms of sound, cinematography, and theatricality, the walking onto the moon is definitely one of the best scenes I’ve witnessed all year in a movie. And you even get an added bonus if you see this movie in IMAX. As you can see, the crew is getting ready, opening their hatch, as they are about to see the moon outside their craft. So you get to see the camera coming out, and BOOM! Silence. Scientifically accurate for sure, but that’s not the point. The effect that lack of sound has on the scene literally dropped my jaw. And as if that’s jaw dropping enough, the lunar sequences for this movie were shot on IMAX film. So once the camera comes out of the craft, we go from the aspect ratio we’ve been seeing for the entire movie so far to full fledged, screen-covering glory. WALL TO WALL. FLOOR TO CEILING. Looking at Neil Armstrong up close makes you feel like you are an ant compared to him. The screen dominated me in that moment. The way everything plays out in that from acting, directing, and camerawork just felt like I was in a museum looking at paintings instead of a movie. And another reason why I love this IMAX transition goes back to how this movie was shot on 16mm film. Everything looks fuzzy, it was somewhat of a more unsettling time back then. This takes all depression out of the equation and we have gone from a sad movie that felt like a soap opera, to the end of an epic. It’s one of the best movie transitions I’ve seen in recent memory, and some of the all time best use of an IMAX camera that I am aware of.
I will say that a number of movies shot with an IMAX camera happen to be ones I enjoy. Take the “Transformers” movies out of the equation however. On the subject of cinematography, something happens in this movie that made me realize how awesome this movie truly was. When it comes to filmmaking, one term I’ve always hated was “shaky cam.” But there are several scenes in this movie that actually use shaky cam, and it almost made me change my mind on it entirely! Shaky cam is probably a reason why some critics aren’t massive fans of certain action movies. Aside from hiding poor stuntwork, one reason why I imagine some people use shaky cam in their movies may be to heighten tension. I can’t really recall many moments where shaky cam increased tension for me. Here in “First Man,” there’s moments where shaky cam happens to be prominent and believe it or not, I am not bashing on it. A good movie can do things that people have seen before which have been done with care and everything works. A great movie can take something that might not be your thing and change your perspective on it. While I do enjoy space movies VERY MUCH, I don’t traditionally find myself bowing down to the gods of shaky cam. Shaky cam is a reason why I find shows like “Modern Family” somewhat off-putting. I honestly don’t know if I am overrecating, I wonder how other people would react to something like this, but this is just how I felt from my experience.
In the end, I wouldn’t call “First Man” an A+, but it sure comes close. This is by far one of my favorite movies of the year, and when it comes 2018’s new releases, “First Man” is up there with “Ready Player One” as one of my favorite theater experiences. It has the potential to shoot itself up to an A+ depending on replay value or depending on how I view this movie outside the theater, but in reality, from a critical point of view, while it has some minor things to complain about, there are really no glaring errors (then again, I don’t work for NASA, so science isn’t my biggest strong suit). What Damien Chazelle did with this movie is truly something to appreciate. The cast, while not technically completely matching with their counterparts were believable and added to the movie’s overall grit. The score is appropriate for the film and perhaps something maybe I’ll listen to for motivation. While there were not really any shots to pick out to say that they were really innovative for the most part, the cinematography in “First Man” is certainly something I hope not to forget sometime in the future. Also, if you can, please, go see “First Man” in IMAX. You’ll thank me later. I’m going to give “First Man” a 9/10.
Thanks for reading this review! For those of you who read my work often, you may be aware that I’ve gone to New York Comic Con. I went almost a couple of weeks ago, and don’t worry, a post on that is coming. I just need to put it together. I’m actually going to be in a hotel room in Connecticut this weekend because I’m going to see the Impractical Jokers live, so when I have some free time, or if I choose to be a madman and stay up all night (which would be appropriate because I’m in a casino), maybe I’ll work on this post then. As far as movie reviews go, I will say that my next pick is currently undecided, maybe I’ll go see “Bad Times at the El Royale,” “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” maybe “Night School.” A good comedy is soothing every once in a while. Seriously though, I’m almost considering going to see “First Man” again sometime soon. It’s that good. Be sure to follow me on Scene Before either with an email or WordPress account so you can stay tuned for more great content! I want to know, did you see “First Man?” What did you think about it? Or, you know what? F*ck it. Was the moon landing faked? Please comment below, I would like your honest answers, I won’t judge (maybe). Scene Before is your click to the flicks!