Sunday, October 14, 2018
Based on the biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, First Man is about the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong from his early days as a pilot to being the first man to walk on the moon as he deals with challenges in his professional and personal life. Directed by Damien Chazelle and screenplay by Josh Singer, the film is an unconventional bio-pic of the famed astronaut who deals with the dangers of his job as well as the events in his personal life as he is played by Ryan Gosling. Also starring Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Lukas Haas, and Kyle Chandler. First Man is an enthralling and evocative film from Damien Chazelle.
July 20, 1969 was a momentous moment in the history of civilization when Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon as it was the culmination of a decade long journey during the space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union to reach the impossible. For all of the fame that Armstrong would receive for this accomplishment lies a man who endured professional and personal challenges including moments of tragedy as he would withdraw from fame and even in his own family to focus on what he must do as an astronaut. Josh Singer’s screenplay focuses on Armstrong’s life as a test pilot in 1961 to the moment he returns home from the moon which would also include his first marriage to Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) as well as life with their children including the death of his daughter Karen at age 2 as she had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor and died of complications related to pneumonia.
The script would have Armstrong not just deal with the job in hand as he and other astronauts try to figure out what to do and also what not to do. Even as Armstrong would deal with a couple of tragedies while he would also have a near-death experience during the Gemini 8 mission with David Scott (Christopher Abbott) where the capsule docking with the Agena Target Vehicle as part of a docking experiment had the capsule separated and rolled around orbit. Yet, more problems including the Apollo 1 testing session that lead to the death of Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) forces Armstrong to make sure nothing else goes wrong as he would eventually be selected to command the Apollo 11 mission with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas).
Damien Chazelle’s direction is definitely intense not just for the idea of what it’s like being in a jet plane or in a space capsule but also the sense of fear of what to do in case something bad happens. Shot largely in locations near Atlanta including studios in Atlanta along with additional locations in Los Angeles, the film does play into a moment in time where so much is happening while there is an air of innocence into the Armstrong home life. Even as they would have other astronauts as neighbors and their kids playing with each other as Chazelle aimed for a natural look into these scenes as it would also play into the sense of loss that the Armstrong family would endure as well as the chaos that would happen during the course of Armstrong’s time as an astronaut including tragedy that affected this small community of people. Chazelle would use some wide shots for these scenes as well as a maintain a looseness into the camera by shooting with a hand-held camera for close-ups and medium shots to get an intimacy as well as some of the dramatic tension that occurs between the Armstrongs.
For the scenes inside the capsules, there is this claustrophobic element where Chazelle doesn’t just give the audience an idea of what it is like inside a space capsule, a test-jet plane, and other test modules as well as the lunar module. The usage of shaky camera during a rocket launch or seeing what Armstrong and his crew are seeing from their perspective adds to the sense of fear that these men have to face. Even in the sound where it has this element of something could go wrong add to the atmosphere of what is happening. The sequence set on the moon and its landing with stock footage of people watching the event happening is definitely a majestic moment with its usage of wide shots as a look into what Armstrong might be thinking about on the moon though his face isn’t shown on the helmet as it play into everything he’s endured to reach this monumental feat. Overall, Chazelle crafts a mesmerizing yet astonishing film about the life of Neil Armstrong and his struggles with his job and life at home.
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with the usage of natural lighting for many of the scenes in the neighborhood including the scenes at night along with some stark yet vibrant lighting for the scenes at the mission control centers in NASA and the low-key lighting for the scenes inside the space capsules and lunar module. Editor Tom Cross does excellent work with the editing as it has some unique rhythmic cuts to play into the drama along with some stylish jump-cut montages for a few recurring flashback scenes from Armstrong’s perspective. Production designer Nathan Crowley, with supervising art director Erik Osusky plus set decorators Randi Hockett and Kathy Lucas, does amazing work with the look of the machines and such for the astronaut training as well as the interior/exterior of the space capsules and how small they as well as the mission control rooms and the homes of the astronauts. Costume designer Mary Zophres does terrific work with the costumes from the clothes that everyone wears on a casual day as well as the astronaut clothes that are worn for the missions.
Special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm and visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert do incredible work with the special effects with the look of the exteriors of outer space and the moon as well as the usage of practical effects to give the scenes in space an air of realism as it is a highlight of the film. Sound designer/sound editor Ai-Ling Lee and co-sound editor Mildred Iatrou do tremendous work with the film’s sound in creating that sense of atmosphere of what goes on in space where the metal sound like it’s bending or about to break as well as the lack of sound when someone is in outer space or on the moon as it’s a highlight of the film. The film’s music by Justin Hurwitz is superb for its usage of low-key strings, ambient pieces, and usage of the theremin to help maintain an atmosphere that is calm but also disconcerting at times in some of the drama and suspenseful moments in the film. The film’s music soundtrack features an array of music from the 1960s including a few classical and show tune pieces as well as some country and folk music from Gene Autrey, Peter, Paul, & Mary, the Kingston Trio, Samuel Hoffman with Les Baxter, Johnny Ace, the Chantels, and a poetic piece by Gil Scott-Heron who is seen briefly on the film as he is played by Leon Bridges.
The casting by Francine Maisler is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from Kris Swanberg as Elliot See’s wife Marilyn, Lucy Stafford as Karen Armstrong, Luke Winters and Gavin Warren in their respective roles as the older and younger version of Rick Armstrong, Conor Blodgett as Mark Armstrong, Ethan Embry as astronaut Pete Conrad, Pablo Schreiber as astronaut Jim Lovell , J.D. Evermore as NASA flight director Christopher C. Kraft Jr., Cory Michael Smith as astronaut Roger Chaffee, and Brian d’Arcy James as test pilot Joseph A. Walker who gets Armstrong on board to NASA. Shea Whigham is terrific as Virgil “Gus” Grissom as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts who help the new astronauts prepare for what to expect for Gemini and later Apollo. Patrick Fugit is superb as Elliot See as an astronaut in training who befriends Armstrong as he was set to command his own mission only to die tragically during a training mission.
Olivia Hamilton is fantastic as Ed White’s wife Patricia who befriends Janet as they share their stories of fear for their husbands but also what they had to endure at home. Christopher Abbott is excellent as Dave Scott as Armstrong’s co-pilot on Gemini 8 who experiences that near-death experience as he also tries to understand what went wrong. Kyle Chandler is brilliant as NASA chief officer/former astronaut Deke Slayton who makes sure things go smoothly while Ciaran Hinds is amazing as Robert R. Gilruth who is a flight director for NASA who helps oversee the making of the Apollo missions. Jason Clarke is incredible as Ed White as an astronaut who would become the first American to do the spacewalk while trying to understand Armstrong’s distant persona as it relates to loss. Lukas Haas is remarkable as Michael Collins as the capsule module pilot who helps Armstrong and Aldrin reach the moon and ensure their safety.
Corey Stoll is sensational as Buzz Aldrin as the film’s comic relief of sorts as he often says off-color things while being someone who does take his work serious as he would accompany Armstrong on their momentous mission to the moon. Claire Foy is phenomenal as Janet Shearon as Armstrong’s then-wife who deals with loss as well as the sense of fear of what could happen to her husband as she is also someone who doesn’t take shit from anyone as it is a riveting performance from Foy. Finally, there’s Ryan Gosling in a magnificent performance as Neil Armstrong as a test pilot/engineer who is tasked with what has to be done as he deals with the many dangers of his job but is also restrained and distant due to the fact that he’s still reeling from the loss of his daughter and later deal with the loss of colleagues as it’s a performance that is filled with restraint but also with a sense of determination and drive giving Gosling a career-defining performance.
First Man is a tremendous film from Damien Chazelle that features great performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. Along with its supporting cast, gorgeous visuals, eerie sound design, a soothing yet haunting music score, and a gripping story about what astronauts had to endure and the chaos that goes on behind the scenes. It’s a film that doesn’t play towards the conventions of the bio-pic while also being this study of a man trying not to fail in preparation for his mission to go to the moon while dealing with grief. In the end, First Man is an outstanding film from Damien Chazelle.
Damien Chazelle Films: (Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench) – Whiplash - La La Land
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