By Connor Carey
Director Damien Chazelle proved himself through just two films to be one of today’s best working directors. Whiplash is one of the most electrifying, intense, and expertly made and edited movies I’ve seen all decade. It’s the movie that introduced me to Chazelle and the film that brought out the absolute best from performers Miles Teller and Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons. He followed that up with the even more successful but vastly different La La Land. Both films feature music as a strong presence, but both have greatly different tones. If Whiplash put Chazelle on filmgoers’ radars, then La La Land was the one that solidified him as a force to be reckoned with, and ultimately made him the youngest recipient ever to win the Oscar for Best Director.
His new film, First Man, is vastly different from everything he’s ever done. There is no theme of music and hardly anything that suggests it was directed by the same guy who made Whiplash and La La Land. Before I saw this movie at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, I was skeptical despite the widespread acclaim it had been receiving at other festivals. Walking out of the screening, I was disappointed at myself for ever having doubted Chazelle, Gosling, or this film in general. This is easily one of the best films of the year and one you’ll be hear about around awards season.
First Man is an intense, focused, and gripping study of a man who looks at a monumental moment in history as nothing more than a mission. Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong and unsurprisingly delivers another exceptional performance in a career full of them. I’ve seen many reviewers note that they find him rather bland in the role, but after learning about who Armstrong was as a person, I couldn’t think of anyone who could’ve played him better without losing accuracy. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Gosling is left out of the awards conversation, he 100% deserves to be mentioned for his fantastic and understated performance. However, I feel Claire Foye will be the one who most will be talking about once this film is released in a few weeks. She delivers a powerhouse performance and often outshines Gosling. The rest of the supporting cast are all great too, with Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, and Kyle Chandler leaving the most impact.
As someone who didn’t know a whole ton about Neil Armstrong’s personal life or about the Apollo 11 mission, I came out very satisfied on both fronts. Even if you know the outcome of the plot, First Man still manages to build intensity throughout, resulting in a final act that’ll surely keep you on the edge of your seat. The moon landing sequence is fantastically done and worth the price of admission alone, and the ending packs a bigger punch than you’d expect.
Damien Chazelle is now three-for-three and shows no sign of slowing down. With First Man, he really puts himself out there by doing something so vastly different than anything he’s done before, and it pays off big time. I eagerly wait for his next project. This is also a film that has the potential to get better and better upon further viewings.
When this film hits theaters on October 12th, I implore you not only to see it, but to make sure you find the biggest screen possible. I can’t recommend First Man enough; it will be a big player in the awards race in the coming months.