“First Man” takes off with strong lead performances

WSS reviews Damien Chazelle’s latest film, “First Man.” A dramatization of the moon landing with a strong lead performance.

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Jack Harris, Online Arts Editor

“First Man” is very much like the moon landing itself, not perfect but because of the people involved, ultimately successful. “First Man” is a movie from director Damien Chazelle, who is best known for his 2016 film “La La Land” for which he won an Oscar for best director and the 2014 movie “Whiplash” for which he was nominated for best screenplay. “First Man” is based on the story of how Neil Armstrong became the titular first man to walk on the moon and stars Ryan Gosling, who was also in “La La Land,” in the role of Neil Armstrong.

The plot of the film revolves the character of Neil and how the major events in his life, and his relationship with his wife Janet, who is played by Claire Foy, affect him and end up leading him to become the first man on the moon. Chazelle’s directing is very noticeable throughout the film, through his use of silent or quiet moments to let characters body language, emotions, and physical reactions tell the story instead of having them spout out every detail through dialogue. Chazelle’s use of shaking the camera to set a mood for scenes is present throughout the entire film and while pretentious or distracting at some points at others, it adds effective layers to scenes in the movie. The movie takes place from 1961, when Neil joined NASA, to July 1969, when the moon landing took place, and because of this, the overall pacing of the movie can feel a bit off at times due to the fact that the movie has to go through several time jumps that sometimes skips up to 3 years leaving some scenes feeling utterly disjointed from others. This is something that doesn’t necessarily ruin the movie in any way, it just ends up being a bit odd, and would be hard for any filmmaker to avoid with a story like this one.

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in “First Man.” ~ Universal Pictures

One thing that remains completely unaffected by the pacing is Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy giving absolutely stunning performances. What stood out the most about Gosling’s performance was his ability to show so much of his character and convey emotion without any dialogue and just silently interact with his environment and through his body language. Foy’s performance, on the other hand, is most effective through her delivery and ability to pack explosive amounts of emotion into limited amounts of dialogue. The way these two actors both together and off of each other gives the onscreen couple powerful chemistry throughout the entire movie.

However one problem with “First Man” is the other characters and performances. Outside of Neil and Janet, there aren’t any characters that stand out or are well developed even though a few characters end up being part of Neil’s motivation. None of the other performances stand out either. It ends up being a little hard to develop attachments to many characters because almost all of the time is spent with Neil or Janet, and many of the scenes with either of them focus solely on Neil or Janet or both. The character of Buzz Aldrin is particularly bad because he has very limited dialogue. Buzz has only 3 lines of dialogue until the moon landing scene. Another problem is that in his lines of dialogue he is always being obnoxious and insensitive. You could say that it is a good thing his character has so little screen time because of how bad his character is.

Lukas Haas, Ryan Gosling, and Corey Stall in the film “First Man.” ~Universal Pictures

Even though Buzz Aldrin may be a bit different from real life the historical accuracy of the movie is out of this world. Two main incidents drive Neil’s motivation in the film and while neither event can truly be confirmed to have motivated Neil in real life, his family does believe both did. The movie also does a very good job of accurately showing what Neil was like in real life and Gosling does an of portraying how Neil acted. All deaths that occur in the movie are real although the first one that occurs isn’t as disturbing as it was in real life. In the movie the character just sort of dies off screen, whereas in real life this character died of brain cancer on Neil and Janet’s anniversary. All in all every scene (except maybe one) in the movie is either a real event that actually occurred or is based very closely on a real event that actually occurred. All of the characters in the movie are real people in real life. The one scene with the realisticity in question is the emotional climax of the movie, which happens while Neil is on the moon. while no one can really say for certain that this scene happens it seems likely that either it did or something very similar did.

While some scenes are possibly in question it seems like the movie as a whole is almost entirely historically accurate. The directing, acting, and technicals have some flaws, but are still the best part of the entire movie and are some of the best I’ve seen this year.  Some of the writing has some issues but is still mostly impressive. The movie in its entirety is both captivating and entertaining and while it isn’t the best movie of the year, it is certainly an impressive one.