Talk about a wunderkind. At 33, Damien Chazelle has a best directing Oscar, along with two writing nominations. Now, with First Man, he makes his first unquestionable awards-bait, a biopic of real American hero Neil Armstrong (strongly played by Chazelle’s La La Land star Ryan Gosling), the first man to walk on the moon. With Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff virtually forgotten, First Man joins Hidden Figures as the premier cinematic accounts of America’s eventual victory in the space race.
Of course, Chazelle captures the multiple failures that led to the exciting, risky mission to the land on the moon. However, he and writer Josh Singer, who adapted James R. Hansen’s book, spend lots of screen time focusing on the less heroic, human side of Armstrong, as he slowly deals with the deep grief caused by the tragic loss of his young daughter. He may now be a major historical figure, but first he was a man, husband and father. How that Armstrong found himself on the moon is much more interesting to Chazelle, Singer and Gosling.
Audience members expecting a rousing crowd pleaser may leave slightly disappointed—many of these viewers may shy away due to the fake flag controversy—but most will wind up agreeing with the filmmakers. Understanding what made Armstrong take that “giant leap” is more complex than that famous “small step.”