Director Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash and La La Land) 2018 film posed a fascinating venture for distributor and studio Universal Pictures. Initially premiered at the awards festival circuit to near-total acclaim, critics praised First Man, a biopic centered around the first man to walk on the moon: Neil Armstrong, for its jaw-dropping cinematography and masterful filmmaking. Such praise did not come without its controversy however, as some audiences complained about the exclusion of Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, planting the American flag in the film. Combined with reactions that the movie was a “slow burn,” First Man failed to nab the financial success that Universal was likely hopeful for. Debuting on October 10th, 2018, the film grossed over one hundred million dollars worldwide on a budget of fifty-nine million dollars. Not a disastrous flop by any means, but it was certainly no grand success. The film similarly disappointed at that year’s awards season, drowned out by competing fare like Roma, Green Book, and A Star Is Born.
However, while First Man has quickly faded from the public’s memory, I recently watched the film again for this piece, hoping to delight again in the merits that captivated me when I first saw the film. Indeed, in 2018, First Man landed as my favorite film of the entire year, overtaking the usual candidates like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse or Black Panther. Fortunately, I can testify that the film is nearly just as, if not more awe-inspiring than it was in October of 2018. Screenwriter Josh Singer smartly adapts James R. Hansen’s book into a somber and poignant screenplay where every move of the writing’s brush is deliberate and effective. For example, lead protagonist Neil Armstrong, portrayed by Academy Award-nominated actor Ryan Gosling, is portrayed much differently than audiences might have anticipated. Instead of a swashbuckling, ambitious hero, we see Armstrong as a quiet and calculating mind, refusing to break into passionate emotion when anyone is around him. After a tragic loss in his family, Armstrong (Gosling) is thrust into Project Gemini to further the ongoing space race at the time. The collision of these two life-shattering events comes far too close, thus resulting in the character never being able to close the book on the tragic opening before the final moments of the film. It is an unexpected take on the legendary astronaut, one that positions First Man not so much as an exciting adventure on blasting off to the moon but rather a drawn-out character study.
Similarly noteworthy are the lunar sequences which serve as the story’s ultimate climax. Before these sequences, Chazelle, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren captured the scenes using handheld cameras on 16mm film, where the film grain is particularly noticeable. However, once Armstrong and company land on the moon, the format completely changes in a jaw-dropping transition from the handheld 16mm cameras to full IMAX cameras. The result is that the scenes taking place on the moon are awesome to look at. Each frame takes up the full height of the screen, without a bit of film grain in sight, capturing the momentum of it all. In 2020, IMAX filmed footage is usually used during high-end action sequences, like Dunkirk for instance, meant to give the sequences a fortissimo in emphasis. While on the surface it appears First Man follows this logical trend, the lunar sequences are in fact nowhere near the most exciting scenes in the entire film. Chazelle instead uses these scenes as powerful weapons for conveying the emotional torment that Armstrong suffered over the entire film and the much-needed closure he can find in the barren landscapes.
These highlights are amongst a sea of examples of how First Man is a modern classic hidden in plain sight. Its unconventional approach to its legendary lead character might be bizarre at first, but regardless, Chazelle leads the film firmly in that direction. The outcome is that First Man is both moving yet cold, thrilling yet somber, unexpected yet perfect. If you have not had the chance to screen this 2018 release and are looking for a fine piece of cinema to chew on during quarantine, look no further than First Man.