“… effortlessly immerses the audience into one of the most famous moments in human history, as well as the life of the man at the centre of it.”
Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong who was first to walk on the moon, had a few obstacles to overcome right out of the gate. First of all, as I mentioned in the first sentence of this review, everybody knows that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. There’s no question about it (unless you are prepared to get punched in the face by Buzz Aldrin) which means the film lacks the suspense that a traditional film wherein the ending is unknown has automatically. First Man also has to deal with the issue of Neil Armstrong’s life being a lifetime, and with the story being so big and so complex there aren’t clear lines to cut and form a coherent narrative in the movie. But in spite of these issues, First Man triumphed and created a phenomenal moviegoing experience.
As mentioned, First Man had to overcome the issue of Neil Armstrong’s life being a massive story to undertake. I had thought that Damien Chazelle would have combatted this by focusing solely on the Apollo missions, the eleventh of which being the one where Armstrong becomes the titular First Man, but instead he decided to focus on a larger aspect covering almost all of Armstrong’s time at Nasa up to, and including, the Apollo missions. This was a very smart move in my opinion because it allowed the audience to become attached to Armstrong due to us seeing more of his journey to becoming the first man on the moon, including personal and professional hardships. Where Chazelle decided to make cuts was brilliant in my opinion because he was constantly focusing in on an aspect of Armstrong’s life that was interesting to the audience, but also respecting all of the work that it took to get there. It never felt like First Man was leaving anything out, at least in terms of Neil Armstrong.
Where First Man stumbles on this point is in regards to all of the stories that were in First Man, but not starring Neil Armstrong. These secondary stories featuring supporting characters in Armstrong’s life unfortunately fall entirely by the wayside in these time jumps that the film uses to condense the narrative. Sure, the movie is about Neil Armstrong so who cares about anybody else, but Chazelle does such a good job setting these characters up and making you care about them that when their stories have massive holes in them you can’t help but feel robbed.
In terms of the second issue that First Man faced, the audience knowing how the story ended, Damien Chazelle fought that uphill battle in a very simple manner: making the best movie possible. I know it’s kind of a cop-out to say this, but it didn’t matter that I knew that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon because I was so engrossed in every single aspect of this film from start to finish. A massive part of that is Damien Chazelle’s seemingly effortless way to immerse me in this world. There are two main ways in which Damien Chazelle accomplishes this, so let’s split them up.
First of all we have direct immersion, most-often seen when Neil Armstrong is being an astronaut. These moments utilize point-of-view shots, intense sound design, and direction that will quite literally make your head spin. These moments serve to put you in the head of Neil Armstrong, really making you feel what he feels in any given scenario. This pays off immensely during the moon landing scene when you feel as though you are there. It is an amazing feat to pull off, but Chazelle does it with such grace that you don’t even notice you’re holding your breath.
The second way that Damien Chazelle immerses the audience is a little more subtle, and is seen most often when Neil Armstrong is at home. These moments feature what I can only describe as ‘home movie camerawork’. Chazelle opts to use a handheld camera rig to give the audience the illusion that we are watching very amateur, and therefore very personal footage. This makes you feel strange because on one hand you feel as though you are seeing something you shouldn’t, but at the same time you know that this is the best representation of the character of Neil Armstrong that you are going to get. This causes an internal conflict that makes you despise yourself for watching, but not being able to look away. Of course what really sells these ‘candid’ moments are the performances. I could write an entire essay on why exactly Ryan Gosling was amazing in this movie, but it would boil down to subtlety. By all accounts Neil Armstrong was a very reserved man, and Ryan Gosling plays into that in a way that we haven’t seen from him before. His ability to convey so much emotion without words is masterful, and he really does a great job of conveying Armstrong’s struggle to separate his work and home life.
Overall First Man is a masterpiece. Not only is it Damien Chazelle’s best work to date but it also might be the best movie I’ve seen all year. Every aspect of this movie is done to an almost flawless degree, but the main selling point is immersion. First Man effortlessly immerses the audience into one of the most famous moments in human history, as well as the life of the man at the centre of it.
I give First Man an A