Very rarely does an individual come across a film that is so grandiose in its vision, dictating a momentous occasion that changed the very course of human history as we know it, yet so somber and understated in the way it chooses to tell the story. Fitting the standard template of the Hollywood yearly inspirational biopic in a number of scenes, the film’s choice of completely defying notions in most others, scenes that would have otherwise been accompanied by self-indulgent dialogue, a rousing score, or both, is what brings me to highlight the deeply intimate nature of the film in the first place. The very astute observation that ‘First Man’ for the most part, both in its moments of crushing defeat and overwhelming victory, chooses to have the lens and focus squarely on its protagonists establishes that this is a ‘human’ story first, and why it is titled so, as opposed to ‘First Voyage’ or likewise. Nicely settling in the mould and breaking several ones at the same time, ‘First Man’ is one of the most potent biopics in years.
In a number of reviews for the film, I have consistently read that a lot of people and critics felt that Damien Chazelle won’t be as consistent with this film following unprecedented academy and box office successes. Of course, this film proved them wrong on at least one of those aspects, but I am unsure as to why this notion existed in the first place. To his merit, here he handles material that is almost polar opposite to what he has before and bereft of a common strength that defined ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land’, the music. Despite that, what he delivers is as formidable as his previous outings, intentionally underplayed for an enhanced dramatic effect, something that I agree was a calculated risk of sorts, but also something that ended up working big time for me. Chazelle chooses to tell the story in a deeply personal and engaging way such that Niel Armstrong’s hard earned victory seems like your own, his struggles too.
‘First Man’ is filled with silent moments of quite introspection depicting Niel’s current and frequently conflicted state of mind, moments of doubt that are key and precede any sizeable achievement, and while they could easily be construed as fillers between key scenes, Ryan Gosling’s visible dedication to the part makes sure it’s otherwise. There are solid buildups and tense moments here with a thumping score in the background, and moments quietly underplayed for solid emotional impact. A lot of viewers may have found the build up to the much awaited finale itself to be too long and tenuous, but to me, that was the beauty of it all.
‘First Man’ showcases all the years of struggle and sacrifice, the simulations, the trials, the failures and the personal toll it took on Armstrong with pining detail, and that is precisely what makes the finale on the Moon that much deserved. Visually breathtaking in its final 20 minutes or so, more so than any other effects laden film I came across last year, and well shot for its entire runtime otherwise, ‘First Man’ is a win-win on all technical fronts of film, a sound and heartfelt retelling of one of the most celebrated true stories of all time, and that of the indomitable human spirit.