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'First Man' biopic captures essence of early space exploration

Man’s first steps on the Moon were broadcasted across the globe. A feat of ingenuity witnessed by millions in awe of not only the ability but the audacity of the human spirit. NASA's achievement cemented its victory in the Space Race and etched the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into world history. Damien Chazelle’s film, "First Man," presents the person behind the mission and the perils of space exploration.

Ryan Gosling regulates some of his natural charisma and portrays Neil Armstrong with a steely subtle demeanor. Chazelle constructs Armstrong as an egghead, good-ol-boy, who rejects those around him. Armstrong is not forthright with his emotions or his intentions to explore the majesty of space. He simply does it because he is a pilot assigned to the Apollo command, not for fame or glory.

The air of masculinity in this film is potent. Along the way to the moon landing, Armstrong loses several friends and co-workers to workplace incidents. He and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy) suffer tragedy when their daughter dies of cancer in the opening minutes. The death haunts the two of them throughout. But, Armstrong never talks about any of the deaths or sheds a tear. Chazelle portrays it as if it were his duty to remain withdrawn. 

The film begins with Armstrong as a pilot in California. Once he transfers to NASA, he uproots his family to Houston. There he becomes a company man and settles in with the other astronauts. What Chazelle, Gosling and Foy really nail is that NASA is just another job. Armstrong can go test the Gemini 8 docking rocket, where almost everything goes wrong, and still have to clean the pool when he gets home. Janet Armstrong worries about her husband’s absence. There is no analog for the job of an astronaut, but the behaviors mimic that of any 1960s family relationship.

Chazelle’s filmmaking shines in his construction of the mechanical nature of early space exploration. The film is filled with knobs, buttons, flashing lights and faulty radio equipment. The shaking ships and rickety compartments create a harrowing nature, forgotten in modern space movies. Recent films like "Interstellar" and "Gravity" present space as a beautiful sea of unexplored slick wonder. The journey to space through several trials actually presents the task as human and difficult. Those involved were people who made mistakes, not infallible figures — much like Armstrong himself. "First Man" turns the trip to the moon into a claustrophobic nightmare that could result in failure with one wrong move. 

This is Chazelle’s third film following "Whiplash" and "La La Land," and his first after winning the Best Director Award at the 2017 Oscars for the latter — the youngest director to win the award. Space is a steep undertaking for any auteur. Chazelle follows in the footsteps of directors Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuarón. He struggles to match the previous directors sense of purpose in the vastness of space. "First Man" does not capture the sense of imagination the others achieved. Instead, Chazelle opted to craft a character study around a mysterious, occasionally riveting figure in Armstrong. 

For those craving some sort musical pontifications or relations ever at the forefront of Chazelle pictures will have to settle for some slight nods. Armstrong and Janet connect through Samuel Hoffman’s “Lunar Rhapsody," a song exuding Hollywood space grandeur. But the score created by Justin Hurwitz ("Whiplash," "La La Land") is exhilarating. It toggles from a Western vibe to a harrowing space waltz. 

"First Man" warrants appreciation instead of enjoyment. Chazelle is clearly working overtime to deliver new perspectives on some of the most seen footage ever. The last 15 minutes of the film take place as Alrdin (Corey Stoll) and Armstrong land on the moon. Armstrong is tentative in his movements, considering every step. Chazelle’s directing exudes a vastness and silence of the mission. The expanse should be seen on the largest screen possible, not only to view the fullest of frames, but to witness the smallest of details — all which could have crashed the ship or this film if not under their respective commands. 

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