By MONTE YAZZIE
“Where were you?”
History, tragic and triumphant can have a profound effect on the future, so impactful a date, time, or place becomes burned in your memory and you will remember for your entire life.
Where were you on September 11th? Where were you when Barack Obama was elected President? These are two recent moments that have that type of effect. However, perhaps the greatest “where were you” moment was when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the surface of the moon.
Director Damien Chazelle, who won the Academy Award for directing the musical “La La Land” in 2016, crafts a grandiose and intimate film focused on Neil Armstrong and the American space program leading up to the momentous Apollo 11 undertaking.
“First Man” is an unglamorous yet beautifully depicted look at the struggles, obstacles and catastrophes experienced in the space race in the 1960s.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an ordinary man working in an extraordinary job. The calm demeanor and literal analysis of situations around him make him an unusual person working amidst engineers and pilots at NASA.
But underneath this straight-forward demeanor is a man diligently striving to create an ordinary life for his kids and his loving, long-suffering wife Janet (Claire Foy). But his occupation propels him into the national spotlight as America tries to beat Russia into expeditions beyond earth.
As director Chazelle continues to expand the size of his films, the focus remains on a singular character chasing their ambitious dreams. “Whiplash” and “La La Land” both showcase a young person struggling to establish themselves in an unknown world in pursuit of their passion.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong with intriguing softness as he is pursuing a dream that will take him into an unknown world.
Mr. Chazelle does a nice job of exploring the character, never offering much of a history lesson, but rather looking into the personal afflictions. Specifically, the loss his daughter Karen, which would define the motivation of a man who was consistently looking towards the heavens.
It’s never glamorously constructed, but instead restrained in its depiction of the world around him.
This controlled perspective may not provide the splendor and awe seen in other space travel movies, where space shuttles float amidst starry filled backgrounds. Because the purpose of maintaining minimal views helps in creating tension, helping make this well-known adventure to the moon have some uncertainty associated with it.
It’s a method that works early in the film, but as the historical familiarity settles in, unfortunately it doesn’t connect the emotion like it’s intended and instead it feels underwhelming.
Still, Mr. Chazelle understands how to evoke that old-fashioned Hollywood nostalgia in moments. Sometimes it’s big and boisterous and other times it’s small and composed.
Armstrong is portrayed as a mild-mannered family man who fits in nicely at the neighborhood barbecue; Mr. Gosling provides a quiet, analytical perspective for the character.
Claire Foy provides the standout performance here however as Janet Armstrong. Ms. Foy is tasked with being the emotional core of the film and she succeeds on numerous levels.
Mr. Chazelle takes a few moments to investigate the American perspective of the era, with protests about the space programs exorbitant funding. One Gil Scott-Heron song that clearly identifies the race relation situation is used, but he never examines these aspects for long.
“First Man” remains clear of its purpose, displaying the space race from the eyes of the man who would become the hero America was looking for at the time.
Starring:Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, and Kyle Chandler
3.50 out of 5.00