A Complicated Man
First Man, a visually astounding and authentic biography of Neil Armstrong, succeeds because of director Damien Chazelle’s unflagging obsession with wanting to erase the myths surrounding the legendary astronaut and his voyage to the moon. Chazelle became intrigued with Armstrong’s inability to engage and communicate while on Earth.
As a child Armstrong was surrounded by corn fields and had an unobstructed view of the night sky from his house. The director was fascinated by the fact that Armstrong was so locked in on the evening sky, seemingly searching for answers from above and yet had such difficulty locking his eyes onto what was transpiring on this planet.
First Man often feels like watching a documentary. The filmmaker wanted audiences to feel as though they were observing what was happening in Armstrong’s life and with those surrounding him in real time. The film seems more authentic, especially because these scenes are coupled with first person dialogue skillfully crafted by screenwriter, Josh Singer. Singer successfully adapted Armstrong’s official biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen.
Hansen spent over two years waiting for Armstrong to give him consent as his biographer. Notorious for declining interviews, Armstrong hated publicity and being portrayed as a larger than life hero. Hansen conducted 60 hours worth of taped interviews with Armstrong, which helped Singer write his screenplay.
Flawlessly cast as Armstrong, Ryan Gostling portrays him as intense, cold -- and as someone who lives inwardly, even incapable of displaying warmth towards wife Janet (Claire Foy) and sons Eric (Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett). He is left completely shattered by the death of his 2-year-old daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford) from cancer. Director Chazelle revisits this theme throughout.
I admire Claire Foy’s strong performance as Neil’s wife Janet. Foy interprets her as extremely tough but equally vulnerable and unafraid of confrontation whether dealing with NASA officials or her husband. Foy is at her best in a scene when her spouse attempts to leave for his mission to the moon without explaining to his children how risky it is and that he could perish.
Foy was drawn to the character because Singer’s script was well written and meticulously researched. She also admired the script for being authentic instead of concentrating on hero worship. She was drawn to Janet because her story and that of the other astronauts’ wives ran parallel to the film’s main narrative, which nobody had been interested in telling before.
Nathan Crowley’s production design is absolutely breathtaking. Crowley and his team consulted NASA officials, historians, and people who were actually there when the Gemini and Apollo 11 missions took place. They then built scale replicas of various space capsules and the lunar module, not only for accuracy but to ensure audiences felt as claustrophobic as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and thought they were shot into space in a sardine can -- with little in the way of technology to guide them or prevent catastrophic failure.
First Man really soars because of Chazelle’s painstaking attention to detail, extensive research, casting choices and ability to show audiences a side of Armstrong they haven’t previously encountered.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.)