After his La La Land won 6 Oscars in 2017, many wondered what director-writer Damien Chazelle would do for an encore. Besides the awards, which was capped off by a Best Picture win (then controversial loss), Chazelle almost single-handedly reinvigorated the musical. And since all his directorial efforts are music-based, it would make sense he’d move forward with a biopic about astronaut Neil Armstrong. Yes, astro-um, wait… what?

Originally attached to Clint Eastwood, First Man is biopic that, conspiracy theories aside, centers around a reluctant hero who is known as the first man to set foot on the Moon. Chazelle showed Neil Armstrong’s humanity by highlighting his obsession and the reserved, almost indifferent, way he handles failure and grief. Some of that grief stems from the death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford). Karen died at age 2 from pneumonia, but that was related to a malignant tumor which was resting in her brain. If nothing else, First Man provides a career-defining, Oscar-worthy performance from Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong as a quiet icon and recluse, driven to succeed no matter the cost. Due to Armstrong’s introverted persona, Chazelle used an intimate approach - plenty of close-ups and delicate moments to examine the astronaut, thus making a historic event also a moment of personal vindication.

Anyone who’s opened a history book already knows the obvious facts – Armstrong is the first man on the moon; he commanded the Apollo 11, which got him and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to the moon (sorry, Michael Collins (Lukas Haas)); and this mission was checkmate in the chess game against the Soviet Union to claim space travel supremacy. First Man covers the years leading up to Apollo 11 (not just the event itself), which proved walking on the Moon was a team effort that included painstaking efforts by many and also claimed lives. Space travel was a new and novel concept and, considering flight was discovered maybe a generation earlier, the task to simply make it to the Moon was an arduous and dangerous one. So when Armstrong exclaimed, “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there,” he meant it, because by that point in the film Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Charles Bassett, Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) had already died during training.

Not only did astronauts and the rest of the NASA staff sacrifice greatly to achieve success, the wives did, too. That sacrifice isn’t shown any more clearly than by Janet Armstrong, played magnificently by Claire Foy. Janet suffered plenty as she had to deal with an absent husband who never opened up. While he was working, Janet took care of the home and raised their two remaining sons. Janet cared greatly for Neil, so her pain is only heightened because she’s helpless throughout all of it. Foy provides the film’s few emotional outbursts – necessary ones since she’s the only one not afraid to make her feelings known, and because she’s the audience surrogate. Foy is an Oscar frontrunner – it’s a shame she didn’t get more screentime.

Finally, I have to praise Chazelle’s direction (which itself is award-worthy) because this is his most beautifully-shot film to date. Although he, too, romanticized space travel, he provided incredible visuals when looking at Earth from both space and the Moon. Then Chazelle used first person perspective when Armstrong’s feet first touched the Moon’s surface. It’s a fantastic choice because it’s the one opportunity for audiences to share with Armstrong a definite joyous occasion. Chazelle made Armstrong’s personal journey our personal journey, and all of which was realized at that very moment. Combine that with an impeccable score from Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz and a tight script from Josh Singer, and First Man is not only a worthy follow-up to La La Land, it, too, will be at the finish line of the Oscar race.

4.5 stars out of 5


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