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Review: Neil Armstrong drama 'First Man' is Ryan Gosling’s best work yet

By John Clyde, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Oct 11th, 2018 @ 6:27pm



THE MOON — I'm struggling to collect my thoughts about "First Man" to give you a coherent and worthy reaction to this film about Neil Armstrong and his journey to the moon.

This has only happened to me a handful of times, but when the film ended I was speechless. I knew I had just witnessed something incredible, something special, and something that will be considered a cinematic masterpiece. So, how do I verbalize that? How can my words do any justice to the experience that is “First Man”?

I know I’m selling this pretty hard, but this movie had a serious impact on me. Not just for the historic story it told, but also for the way it told the story. I have enjoyed a lot of movies in 2018, but this is by far the best.

Here is my feeble attempt to tell you why “First Man” is such a unique and special film:

The mission to the moon is a backdrop

Most of us know that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin worked with NASA for years before they landed on the moon in 1969. It’s an incredible moment in history, and if director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer decided to tell that story I think they would have had a fine film.

But they went another direction, and it made all the difference.

Instead of giving us a step-by-step look at how NASA got to the moon, we got an incredibly human story about a driven man, Armstrong, who was also a husband, father and friend dealing with demons and heartaches.

Apollo 13” is a great film if you’d like to see a great straightforward approach to a movie about space exploration and the triumph, perseverance and intelligence of mankind.

But that’s not what “First Man” is. Instead, it's really a story about family and relationships told alongside one of the greatest achievements in human history.

Armstrong is painted as a hero, but he’s also shown as a man because that’s exactly what he was. He had his shortcomings, his doubts and his fears, and they’re all on display, which makes for a far more interesting character study and a relatable character.

The filmmakers force us to realize everything Armstrong had to sacrifice to be the first and give us an incredibly emotional, human story. I can’t count the number of times “First Man” made me take a moment of introspection and examine my own life.

The acting is hauntingly real

We already knew both Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are fine actors, but “First Man” is the best thing either of them has done, and I don’t think it’s even close.

We’ve come to know Gosling recently as the handsome and charming leading man from movies like “La La Land” and “The Nice Guys.” He’s also played the quiet detective in “Blade Runner 2049” and the introverted driver from “Drive.”

He's incredibly versatile and one of the best working actors today. That’s why it was so incredible watching “First Man” and completely forgetting I was watching Gosling and not Armstrong himself.

Gosling loses himself in the role, and it makes for a powerful and personal performance. But Gosling isn’t the only memorable performance — Foy is a powerhouse as Armstrong’s wife Janet.

There is a chance she can add an Academy Award to her shelf for her “First Man” performance.

Foy drives home the emotional core of the film and acts as the tether for both Armstrong and the audience to what’s happening in the real world. The chemistry between Foy and Gosling is palpable and plays like a true marriage that has been through the highest of highs and lowest of lows together and found a way to get through it all together.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything play out on film that resonated what it means to be in love and married so truthfully and beautifully as one particular exchange between the two actors at the end of the film.

For me, the best performances of the year are right here. All of the performances in this film are spot on.

Most of the characters outside of Neil and Janet Armstrong are quite two-dimensional, but this actually made the movie better.

Making the other characters one-note forces us to focus on the Armstrongs and makes them that much more interesting. It also grounds us in the reality of the story unfolding in front of us.

Its attention to detail is phenomenal

“First Man” takes place during the 1960s. The filmmakers have paid so much attention to detail that every single set piece, from the interiors of homes to the hairstyles, are spot on. It doesn't feel like something that’s trying to match what was trendy during the time, but rather it feels genuine.

Beyond the tangible things like wardrobes and classic cars, the film is shot almost as if it was made in the 1960s. The film has an almost grainy texture to it that is reminiscent of the time period.

This style doesn’t take away from the brilliant colors and gorgeous cinematography, but rather enhances the experience and takes us on a journey through both time and space.

It doesn't feel like a big budget film

“First Man” is a period piece about humankind’s first trip to the moon. Period pieces get expensive fast with all the set pieces and vintage details.

With a production budget of $59 million, "First Man" has a lower budget than other similar space-travel films, and it shows in the best way.

There is a quiet subtlety in how Chazelle chose to shoot the film. We don’t see the big spectacle of the rocket taking off or the costly shot of the space capsule hovering through space.

Instead, we see pretty much everything as the astronauts would have seen it. We are inside the vessels. We are peeking out the small window trying to catch a glimpse at the expanse of space.

There is a brief moment where your brain tells you it wants to see all the spectacle because that’s what we’ve been trained to see, but quickly you start to appreciate the minimalist approach and it makes us a participant into what’s happening rather than a spectator.

Conclusion

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like “First Man,” and I’m excited for everyone else to experience it.

I think there will be many audience members who won’t enjoy the movie like I did because it is so unconventional to what you may have been expecting. I loved that I got something completely different, but I know some will have a different reaction.

“First Man” is a significant and unique film that begs to be experienced. And it is an immersive experience as it takes you on a first-hand exploration of both space and human emotion.

Make sure to check out Dave Clyde’s parents content guide for “First Man” on KSL.com on Friday.

“First Man” is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril and brief strong language.


John Clyde

About the Author: John Clyde

John has grown up around movies and annoys friends and family with his movie facts and knowledge. He also has a passion for sports and pretty much anything awesome, and it just so happens, that these are the three things he writes about. Contact him on Twitter at @johnnypclyde.

John Clyde

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