Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling’s Divisive Biopic Redefined An Iconic Historical Moment

It’s time we all give Chazelle’s film the acclaim it deserves.

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Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in 2018's 'First Man'
Universal Pictures
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Coming off the release of La La Land in 2016, it didn’t look like anything could slow down director Damien Chazelle. The filmmaker had been christened by critics, casual moviegoers, and his peers as one of the directors of his generation. Even the great William Friedkin deemed him “the future of American cinema.”

But the widespread acclaim of both La La Land and 2014’s Whiplash didn’t stop his next film from receiving a muted response. When Chazelle’s First Man hit theaters in 2018, critics and moviegoers alike shrugged. The film didn’t receive negative reviews, but it wasn’t the popular hit La La Land was, nor did it receive the same overwhelming level of critical acclaim as Whiplash.

Five years later, First Man not only seems like a worthy follow-up to La La Land, but is arguably the finest film Chazelle has made. It’s daring in ways that still feel surprising, and its ability to turn one of the most famous moments of the 20th century into an intimate story of grief and loss is nothing short of breathtaking. Now is as good a time as any to revisit First Man and give it the praise it deserved in 2018.

First Man tells the story of how Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) became a NASA test pilot and ultimately the first man to ever step foot on the Moon. It’s one of the most well-known achievements in human history, but rather than getting lost in all the technical details, Chazelle’s film spotlights the emotional highs and lows Armstrong endured in the years leading up to his historic journey.

The biopic reveals how the loss of several of Neil’s fellow astronauts shrouded NASA’s quest to reach the Moon in tragedy, and how the loss of his young daughter further drove him to succeed. As a portrait of a man of few words grappling with untold amounts of responsibility and grief, First Man is a masterclass in externalizing even the most deep-seated emotions. Whether it’s the quiet breaking of a champagne glass when Neil hears about the loss of his closest friends, or the personal token he brings to the Moon, First Man constantly finds subtle ways to visualize its hero’s struggles.

Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren leave many of First Man’s interior spaces, including the Armstrong family’s Houston home, dark and underlit. They also deploy a primarily handheld camera style that feels strikingly different from anything Chazelle did in La La Land or Whiplash. Together, these choices further emphasize the subdued intimacy of First Man’s story-within-a-story and the alienation felt by its protagonist. No matter where Neil goes, everywhere looks and feels darker than it should, as if his daughter’s demise robbed the world of its light.

Ryan Gosling gives a subdued, career-best performance as Armstrong.

Universal Pictures

While Chazelle’s well-calibrated stylistic choices bring a lot to First Man, it’s ultimately the two performances at its center that anchor the film and elevate it to greatness. As its famous lead, Gosling is a man trapped by his own emotional shortcomings, a vessel of microexpressions that cumulatively lay bare Armstrong’s immense pain and determination. Opposite him, Claire Foy gives a scene-stealing performance as Neil’s wife, Janet, whose empathy for her husband and frustration over the increasing emotional distance between them blend in ways that are heartbreaking and relatable.

Foy and Gosling’s understated performances allow First Man to redefine one of the most iconic moments in American history. In doing so, Chazelle’s film beautifully reminds us of the personal stories that lurk beneath even the grandest historical moments. In the case of First Man, Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon becomes a story of the lengths humans will go to avoid their pain — and what happens when there’s nowhere left to run from it.

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