REVIEW: “First Man” is an intimate biopic with shining performances

Released Friday, director Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the Apollo 11 mission that led to him being the first man on the moon. (Photo from IMDb)

At the end of 2016, Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle were propelled to the top of the film industry thanks to their critically acclaimed hit musical film, “La La Land.” Both Chazelle and Gosling were nominated for Academy Awards, leaving audiences speculating over whether their next endeavor would rival the dazzling success of the movie. This weekend, the duo’s latest project — “First Man”— was released. The move from a vibrant musical to an enthralling biopic is a leap to the opposite end of the narrative spectrum, but Chazelle and Gosling prove that their complementary talents still have much to offer.

Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in the decade of his life leading up to his historic moon landing. For the astronaut and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), it was a period mainly characterized by the deaths of family and friends, despite the attempt to move to a new city and advance his career.

After every tragedy, Chazelle shows the moon beckoning, almost taunting Armstrong in the sunset sky — a motif foreshadowing something greater than scientific achievement: the ultimate escape from the pangs of earthly life.

Shedding the romantic, Hollywood veneer of “La La Land,” Chazelle filmed “First Man” in a pseudo-documentary style; techniques such as grainy ’60s images and handheld cameras are used in typical documentary fashion to support Chazelle’s commitment to realism. Along with composer Justin Hurwitz’s lusciously moody score, the entire experience envelops the audience in the same gloomy atmosphere the Armstrongs found themselves in throughout the 1960s.

“First Man” is a quiet, subtle film thin on exposition (except for the occasional jargon-filled NASA scenes) especially when it comes to character development, but the strong performances  succeed in transmitting feelings rather than thoughts.

Gosling and Foy’s performances consist mostly of thinking. Armstrong especially does not speak much, and everything he does say seems to have undergone lengthy internal deliberation. He is a careful calculator of both life and work — tough to decipher — but made accessible by Gosling’s performance.

Like the film itself, Gosling’s performance is focused on transmitting Armstrong’s dynamic character — he is gleefully playing with his kids in one scene, and receiving tragic news in the next. Gosling gave this turn of events a profound heaviness, as his entire countenance tightens up and he visibly absorbs the painful moments where death catches up to him yet again.

Visual and musical swells are reserved for scenes in outer space, suggesting a type of romance between Armstrong and the cosmos. When asked by a NASA interview committee why he believes space exploration is so important, Armstrong replies that seeing everything from such heights gives humans a necessary perspective on their lives. It is this perspective that he so desperately craves in the face of so much tragedy, fueling his determination to reach the ultimate point of perspective: the moon.

The climax of the film arrives with the Apollo 11 mission. During the first mission’s launch sequence, the camera is placed inside the cockpit; consequently, the images are shaky and unintelligible, mirroring what the astronauts themselves would see in that moment. There are only two images that come across crystal clear: Armstrong’s eyes and the distant moon as he stares it down with determination and longing. As he hurtles toward his destiny, he looks to his left and sees Earth as a tiny, blue-green spot. The place where tragedy reigns is rendered insignificant in the vast cosmos.

“First Man” is a biographical film that is not satisfied with merely recounting chronological events, but rather with exploring the souls of those involved. As a result, the moon landing scene cares not for what the event meant to the United States (the film omits the key moment of Armstrong planting the flag), but rather emphasizes the profoundly personal moment the astronaut quietly made peace with his melancholic circumstances.