First Man – One giant leap for mankind
Movies have blasted off to the moon for 106 years, first with French illusionist George Méliès’ fantastical silent short, Le Voyage dans la Lune. But nobody has done it since with the mesmerizing personal intensity that you can now experience with Damien Chazelle’s First Man.
The film is epic, historic, claustrophobic, heart-stopping, realistic and emotionally harrowing. Ryan Gosling, who is currently Canada’s preeminent star in Hollywood, portrays an American icon, astronaut Neil Armstrong. This is an exceptionally masterful performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Gosling vividly brings the man back from the grave, making him flesh-and-blood with all the wonderment that Armstrong possessed in life, including the courage and curiosity that propelled him into the NASA space program. But these heroic qualities are juxtaposed with his unsettling dark side, to the point that Gosling makes us queasy in family scenes where Armstrong submerges his emotions, especially with his wife Janet (Claire Foy). First Man is subtle drama, not American propaganda.
Armstrong is worthy of such intimate probing. History remembers exactly what he did on July 20, 1969. Armstrong stepped off of Apollo 11’s lunar module, becoming the first human to walk on the moon. At that moment, he uttered his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The brilliance of First Man, besides extraordinary visuals and soundscapes that allow viewers to join the Apollo crew, is how Chazelle spins the story as a journey. Working from Josh Singer’s screenplay, which was based on James R. Hansen’s book, Chazelle personalizes that journey from 1961 through 1969.
We see how the Cold War and competition from the Soviet Union fuelled the American space exploration program. We see how tragedy shattered it, pushing even the taciturn Armstrong to the brink. We see how political interference nearly scuttled it; and we see how the success of 1969 riveted millions on Planet Earth.
Yet that bigness is focused into tiny moments of humanity. Hollywood is often, and justly, accused of exaggerating or distorting true stories. But First Man rings truer than most of its kind. And, while other Hollywood space movies such as The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) lay claim to the same territory, First Man is the most visceral.
I wrote this column before the Hollywood awards season started in earnest. I am uneasy that First Man will fall short, because it does not possess the razzle-dazzle of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. It also does not shimmer with the romance of the last Chazelle-Gosling collaboration, La La Land (2016).
That retro musical tied the all-time Oscar noms record with 14, winning six. I predict that First Man earns six nominations, winning two. But it is critical to emphasize that, regardless of awards, First Man is both exceptional and important. It will stand the test of time, just as Méliès’ fantasy (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902 does for its contribution to world cinema.
|Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.
A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Lifereaders.