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Damien Chazelle Cements Star Status in New Film “First Man”

Illustration by Elena Griedel

As billionaires look to go back to the moon, director Damien Chazelle brings us to the ’60s and the original moon landing. First Man details the life of Neil Armstrong from when he joined the space program until the moon landing. Its focus on  Armstrong and his family and friends creates a compelling film that digs deeper than just the first steps on the moon.

The movie is most successful due to its focus on Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and his wife, Janet. Gosling brings a charm to the role that instantly connects the audience to Armstrong’s emotional journey. The film doesn’t stray away from the many hardships that Neil Armstrong faced, and Gosling expertly demonstrates pain while still giving a sense of optimism and excitement to the journey.

Through the best parts of the movie, the camera returns to close up shots of Gosling where he shows so much depth through often basic facial expressions. The strong focus on the characters lends a great sense of scale to the movie. By focussing the shots around Gosling, everything else felt bigger and more impactful.

Claire Foy, who plays Janet, is also incredible. She grounds the movie when it gets too technical, and gives a sense of heart. While Gosling masks his emotions throughout the film, Foy is more explicit, giving a sense of stakes to the story. Even knowing that Armstrong doesn’t die, Foy’s worry and sadness provides tension that wouldn’t otherwise be present.

The pacing of the film greatly helps the film succeed as well. It moves through the most important events throughout the eight years that the movie takes place, not lingering any more than it has to. It sets up enough context before moving ahead in the time so the plot is never dragged down.  Some years take up more screen time, but it does this to hook the audience into the emotional journey while still giving some focus to the more technical aspects of how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration achieved the ability to travel to the moon.

While a lot of these technical parts were interesting, they occasionally got confusing. Shots would focus on numbers or meters that weren’t always explained, so it was hard to understand what exactly was happening. The astronauts would be talking to ground control, and it was obvious something important was happening, but it was less tense since the audience couldn’t figure out what it was.

It was also hard to understand a lot of the dialogue that came from radios in the film. The lines would be accurately fuzzy like radio communication is, but that made it hard to hear. At other times the sound effects or music would be too loud to hear anything else.

This was really the only problem with any of the sound. Overall the sound effects felt realistic and put the viewer right into the story. They were loud when they needed to be, further adding to the sense that the machines were so much bigger and more powerful than the people operating them.

The music also helped with this. It was booming and orchestral when showing the huge ships and during scenes showing Armstrong’s perspective of everything. The film relied on strings to show a sense of wonder and tension. The attention to detail with the sound effects shows the considerable care put into the film.

Another way of placing the viewer into the story was the visuals. There was a brilliant decision of intermingling almost claustrophobic shots of the interior of the cockpits and the astronauts with shots where the camera was attached to the outside of the ships, looking at certain important parts, like the wings or the docking port.

This put the audience into the head of Armstrong while still showing enough context to understand everything that was happening. Some of the other shots would linger on landscapes or exteriors of launches, which was stunning to look at. The deep blues and oranges were beautiful, and there was a certain sense of graininess to everything that made it feel appropriate to the time period.

The whole film succeeded immensely at making everything feel so real and grounded in the reality. It felt like the audience was right there with Armstrong throughout the ’60s, watching his emotional journey right along with his physical one.

Chazelle proves himself once again as one of the best young directors currently working, and the prodigious director shows no signs of stopping. This film is easily one of the best ones of the year so far and everybody should see it in theaters if they can. The spectacle of it all is beautiful on the big screen, while the plot moves just quickly enough to keep the viewer completely hooked into the story.