First Man is an intimate portrait of astronaut Neil Armstrong during his time working as a test pilot and engineer, becoming an astronaut and as first human to set foot on the moon. It stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as Neil and Janet Armstrong.
It's a habit of movies and especially historical accounts to create a larger than life film that encompasses huge ideas and ideals, but director Damien Chazelle is able to keep First Man reigned in and intimate. Closeups and use of point of view camera work hold us to Neil Armstrong's perspective rather than letting focus stray to the other people and events of the time too often.
It's Claire Foy, though, in this sausage fest of a movie, who's able to shine the brightest. She navigates the silent fortitude of Gosling with fire, anxiety, and passion. Unlike so many other films with a historical bent, First Man does the most to make sure the character of Janet Armstrong is as three dimensional and real as the real life woman she inspired.
What I do love about Gosling's performance and the script by Josh Singer is that it anchors around a very pivotal moment in Armstrong's life, the death of his daughter. The story returns to this line often, reminding us the audience of Armstrong's helplessness as his young child slipped away from him despite all his efforts and despite his incredible intelligence. His endeavor, his drive, his pushing of himself and the program to the moon feels like an effort to make up for his failing. It's a line and a motivation we may not have seen in the hands of another filmmaking team and it makes the film all the more special for the insight.
Yet, beyond human performance, the most magnificent aspect of First Man are its special effects. The incredible vistas created outside the cockpit windows are so finely tuned that they show none of the CGI seams one can sometimes spot in a film that needs to rely on them.
It's like a recreation rather than a reenactment. A more Earthbound biopic can utilize or perfectly and faithfully recreate all of the spots where the hero lived and worked, but with the gorgeous technology at their finger tips, the filmmakers are able to do something truly awe inspiring.
The whole beauty of the story and the anchor storyline coalesces on a "how did they do that?" moon panorama. We don't leave to see the reaction on Earth. The filmmakers revel in the solitude of a rock with only two living beings on it. It's a perfect cap of a moment about a humble human doing something extraordinary.
In parts First Man is slow, it's often hard to remember which background astronaut is which if they haven't shown up for a few scenes, and the steadicam is a bit excessive during some shots when it's really unnecessary, but those are very minor faults that can be over looked. First Man is a film that should be seen and seen on the big screen to get the full breadth of every moment.