Damien Chazelle, writer/director of the critically acclaimed films Whiplash and La La Land, creates another near-perfect film about the trials of the NASA program through the eyes of Neil Armstrong. Josh Singer, writer of Spotlight and The Post, adapted the screenplay from James Hansen’s biography First Man to create a first person narrative.
Coming off of his Best Director Oscar for La La Land, Chazelle proves to the audience once again as to why he deserves another gold trophy; he knows how to start and this film is not an exception. The film opens with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in 1961 flying an X-15 jet into the atmosphere and attempting to come back down. The sound editing and mixing, along with the cinematography, make the scene claustrophobic and tense; the camera rarely leaves the cockpit, making the viewer see through Armstrong’s eyes. Chazelle employs this technique several times later in the film, especially when Armstrong is flying in the Gemini VIII mission. While being launched, the viewer can feel and hear every creek and scraping of the metal, thanks to Ai-Ling Lee’s masterful sound design, showing how unstable these capsules really were.
Linus Sandgren reteams with Chazelle as his cinematographer after their outing together in La La Land. This film is vastly different than his two previous films, primarily because Sandgren decided to use mostly handheld shots with a 16mm lense instead of the regular 35mm he used on La La Land, giving it a documentary feel to it. He also uses a lot of close-ups, especially in emotional scenes, such as the one between Armstrong and his sons before he leaves to go to the moon. The camera gets right in the of the characters to put the viewer in the room with them.
After the film was shown at Venice Film Festival in August, it was met with immediate “controversy” after some people complained the film did not show Armstrong explicitly planting the flag on the moon. I am here to say that this “controversy” is a non-issue, since the flag is shown several times throughout the film and the flag is even shown on the moon next to the LEM on the moon. The film is in fact one of the most patriotic films in years, despite it being a deconstruction of the NASA program. It shows the amount of loss Armstrong and NASA as a whole had to endure for almost a decade; it does not glorify the space program, like in other space films (The Right Stuff), but instead shows the audience a raw and authentic portrayal of the Apollo program. It was dangerous and fatal, making the achievement of landing on the moon even more emotional.
On the surface, it looks like Whiplash, La La Land and First Man have nothing in common, but the common thread through Chazelle’s films is the perseverance and ambition the characters have, whether it be through dumming, acting or space travel. They don’t give in even when they think they should. Chazelle is one of, if not the best, working director today and everyone should experience this film on the big screen. It’s worth the money, I promise.