FIRST MAN made me realize that any notion as a child I had of ever exploring space and becoming an astronaut, should never have come to pass. If I showed this film to my younger self, I’d immediately say, “fuck that, I’d rather flip burgers.” But saying that with this movie, is not a negative. This film makes you appreciate what these men and women tried and accomplished all that much more. It is easily the best space biopic since Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, but I dare say this one is probably more intense and harrowing, fingers nails dug deeply into that soft luxury loungers (if you are lucky enough to have theaters like that around you). Listen, I don’t know anything about space exploration or any historic inaccuracies when watching this film. I just know that extraordinary filmmaker Damien Chazzelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, and actor Ryan Gosling has spoken passionately about this project in interviews I have seen in print and on television, and trust that what they brought to the screen was as close as they could get to the true story, without using the “Based” words you see on every promotional material stretched out wide narratively. I’ve never been this tense in a biopic film when I knew exactly what the ultimate outcome was. First Man is that engaging.
The film has three long sequences of Neil doing spectacular things all surrounded by his personal and family life, as well as the NASA talks in between. At the beginning we see Neil piloting and almost have grave consequences with X-15 craft, toward the middle of the film we get Neil and the Gemini 8, trying to test dock with the Agena, and then of course at the end of the film, the infamous moon landing. Also there is a small sequence of Neil almost getting killed test flying the landing craft. All of these sequences are tense as any good fictional thriller could give you, only I has holding my breath with how extreme it all felt, considering all of this really happened. The Gemini 8 sequence is easily the best in the film. I have never been as clastraphobic in a theater since Ryan Reynolds in Buried. In other Hollywood space films, the fictional ones, and even somewhat in the biopic Apollo 13, the camera and the sets seem to give a lot of room for the cameras and actors to breath, making it feel not as authentic as it should. Not this film. Director Damien Chazzelle takes the camera in what seems to be construction accurate authentic space craft and modules, the shots very close up to show the audience how little room these brave individuals had when out in space, their very lives hanging in the balance at points. At one point during the Gemini 8 sequence, the craft starts to spin at over 200 miles per hour, and once the scene was over my hands hurt from my fists being balled up pretty tight during the shots. If the movie wins anything during the Academy Awards, they should have sound editing and mixing in the bag, they were both incredible and added all the tension necessary to get the intensity to that scene to the audience in their seats.
That brings me to my next point of why director Damien Chazelle should easily get an Oscar nomination for this. Everything felt completely real. When I mentioned that the Gemini 8 goes into a very violent spin, the camera doesn’t go outside the spacecraft to show the audience a blatant special effects shot of the craft and how fast it was spinning. We stay inside with Armstrong and his one other man crew, of how he had to handle it quickly before both of them passed out and they were as sure as dead. In fact, there are very few shows of the various crafts these individuals flew in space, and the shots that are given to the audience I swore had to be expertly shot models, some stock footage, or very detailed almost perfect SFX. It was mind boggling how real everything felt. And one of the last sequences where Armstrong finally gets to the moon, it isn’t bombastically shot like something epic, some fictionalized view of what the moon landing would be in an filmmakers melodramatic or over-the-top climatic eyes. Space is silent, nothing on the moon except some craters and moon rocks/dust. Armstrong looks out and sees a vast darkness beyond of the simple empty white surface in front of him. He isn’t shooting space aliens or jumping happily and screaming out that he made it. Just silent recognition of triumph. And some scenes dealing with loss of family and friends earlier in the film, felt like an emotional journey earned. I nearly choked up near the end.
There really isn’t more to say about the film except that everything in the movie was a close to perfect as you can get for a biopic. The pacing was fantastic, Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy both did excellent jobs acting, Damien Chazzelle knocks it out of the park 3 for 3 with me here. The emotional journey was just as great as the technical one. Everything was earned, nothing forced. If you love space, space exploration, love NASA, want to work for NASA, some kind of mechanical or electric engineer, or basically anyone that loves a good true story biopic, I couldn’t find you a better one in 2018. Masterful and one of the year’s best films for me.