Damien Chazelle is having one of the greatest decades any filmmaker has ever had, reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s run in the 70’s. In just a mere four years, Chazelle has quickly become one of the best directors in Hollywood today. He kicked it off in 2014 with the musical war drama, Whiplash, and followed it up with his modern take on 50’s musicals with La La Land, for which he won a Best Director Oscar. Now, Chazelle has made his most impressive film to date, First Man, a jaw-dropping, masterfully crafted film led by a top-notch performance from Ryan Gosling.
First Man looks at the life of Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and the legendary space mission that made him the first person on the moon in 1969.
Chazelle makes movies about obsession. From Andrew Neyman in Whiplash to Sebastian in La La Land, Chazelle looks at characters who latch on to an idea will do anything to accomplish that idea. For Neyman, it was the idea of being the greatest drummer ever. For Sebastian, it was being a successful jazz artist. These characters alienated their loved ones, went morally and financially broke, and pushed themselves to their breaking points all for what they believed in. Chazelle’s latest flawed, obsessed characters are Armstrong and the United States. After a family tragedy, Armstrong becomes obsessed with the mission to the moon. For nearly a decade, Armstrong and N.A.S.A work tirelessly to succeed in this mission, losing countless men along the way and spending millions of tax payer dollars. N.A.S.A and America want to be ahead of the Russians, who have been leading world in space exploration, which is enough motivation to keep going no matter the cost. But Armstrong uses this mission as a way of coping with the family tragedy. His friends die, he almost dies on a number of occasions, but he constantly pulls it together and moves forward, coming to a point where he becomes an emotionless robot of sorts. This obsession affects Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and their two sons, as Armstrong won’t tell his family a single thing, to a point where he won’t even say goodbye to his kids before the big launch. There is an incredibly touching moment at the end of the film that shows Armstrong’s release of the tragedy that puts a lump in your throat. Chazelle makes great characters and what he has done with such a legendary person is nothing short of genius.
A lot of what makes Armstrong such a great character is the performance by Ryan Gosling. I don’t know if there is an actor who shows more with their eyes than Gosling. Time after time, Armstrong faces tragedy and every time Gosling shows the pain and sadness, but not by having an emotional breakdown, but just by his eyes. His deep stares tell us everything Armstrong is thinking and more. Gosling also portrays a man who is professional and damn good at his job. Chazelle brings out the best is Gosling and they are proving to be quite dynamic duo. Foy is just as good as Janet. She sees her husband descending into this emotionless being and does everything in her power to keep him from completely fading, while also keeping the family afloat. However, Janet knows that what her husband is doing is something extraordinary and wildly dangerous, causing a great amount of stress and turmoil. Foy goes toe-to-toe with Gosling and crushes it. The cast is rounded out by a slew of great supporting actors like Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Cory Stoll, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, and Pablo Schreiber, all of whom hold their own on screen.
When you think of Chazelle’s three major films, Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man, none of them look the same. They each have a unique visual style and are told on different scales. First Man is Chazelle’s most impressive film to date and one of the most visually stunning movies of the decade. Chazelle throws us right into the cockpit for this one, both when Armstrong is on the ground and when he’s traveling in space. He and cinematographer Linus Sandgren put us up close and personal with Armstrongs, focusing on their facial reactions to tell us the drama that is constantly happening. When trying to get to the moon, we feel like we are flying with Armstrong. Sandgren’s cinematography, plus masterful sound mixing and editing, make us feel and hear everything, causing our hearts to race and our palms to sweat. When we get to the moon (not a spoiler, read a history book), the IMAX comes into full swing and it is a spectacle unlike anything in 2018. The depths of space and vastness of the moon are just astounding. We feel like we are actually on the moon when we’re up there. No space movie has felt this authentic since 2001 some 50 years ago.
First Man is a monumental achievement. This is a movie where we know what eventually happens at the end, but it is a movie where that doesn’t matter. Chazelle brings us to the front lines of the U.S. space mission to shows us the horrors, obsessions, triumphs, and tragedies it took to accomplish such a legendary moment in history. Led by career best work from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy and masterful direction from Chazelle, First Man is one of the very best movies of 2018.
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