“First Man” review Neil Armstrong biopic hits with surprising intimate force

As Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” reached its final scene, I realized my favorite element of the movie is how well it sneaks up on you. You walk in expecting a typical biographical film about the first man to walk on the moon. It’s from the director of “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land,” (2016), so it’ll probably be polished and stylistic. Nope. It’s hectic, intense and gripping. And then, it does a subtle 180, turning into a beautifully emotional drama, capturing one man’s intimate journey into silence and peace. Suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Chronicling Neil Armstrong’s professional ascent through NASA and then literal ascent to the moon, this biopic is obviously doubling as a character study. But it’s not just telling us about Neil Armstrong through a smattering of dramatic moments. Credit to Ryan Gosling for playing the lead part so well, but the script has the most power. It doesn’t want us to simply see “First Man” as just another biographical film. It goes to great lengths to show us the intimate connections between one man and many others: his family, his peers, his neighbors, and his country. Armstrong is not portrayed just as a great man who goes on to do great things; he has a disconnect with his family and his fellow astronauts. He has a disconnect with himself, and it takes a journey to silence and serenity for him to reevaluate and find himself again. “First Man” is a story about letting go through reflection, all in the premise of the moon landing.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong embracing his son (played by Connor Blodgett) in “First Man.”

Gosling excels in his role, conveying plenty of emotion through his silent facial expressions, and reacting to events with brilliant dramatic timing. He’s definitely the show-stopper and awards frontrunner, which is a little bit of a disappointment for Claire Foy fans. She has some stellar, even Oscar-worthy moments, but that’s exactly her role: great moments without having a solid foundation to penetrate our emotions through the whole movie as Gosling does.

The filmmaking directly correlates to the themes; as the first half of the movie is hectic, full of shaky cam cinematography, grainy shots that resemble “found footage,” and whirly camera angles. Though some of it is borderline vomit-inducing, it’s a realistic depiction of the danger and turbulence that all these men faced. For those expecting a polished-looking film like “Whiplash” or “La La Land,” prepare to be surprised. It’s gritty, more along the lines of a Paul Greengrass movie (“United 93” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”). As we slowly move into the second half, shots are a little more still. We linger on Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), in a heated argument or in a moment of affection. The moon landing scene (spoiler alert) is the pinnacle of these moments, with smooth camera pans and absolutely beautiful visual effects. It’s the highlight of the film and is the most reminiscent to Damien Chazelle’s previous works.

Also fitting is the musical score, composed by Chazelle’s regular collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. The music isn’t grand or bombastic like one might expect; it’s melodic, subtle, and even haunting at times. It matches visual cues perfectly, and is the wonderful finishing touch to an intimate, emotional movie. It definitely deserves a Best Original Score nomination.

Now I can’t not mention the ridiculous flag planting controversy, so I’ll just say this: “First Man” is a patriotic film. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are plenty of explicit references to the space race with Russia, and despite the opposition shown in the film, the moon landing proves to be a success for America as much as it is for the human race. The United States receives its well-deserved praise before the end credits roll. And the American flag is shown on the moon in two breathtaking shots. “First Man” is one of 2018’s highlights. See it in theaters while you still can.

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