Damien Chazelle has done it again, apparently. The filmmaker took home the Best Director Oscar for his last film, the fantastic musical La La Land, and the first First Man reviews have arrived for Chazelle’s ambitious follow-up feature. Something of a passion project for Chazelle, First Man is a chronicle of the NASA astronauts’ years-long journey to land on the moon, with Ryan Gosling filling the lead role of Neil Armstrong. Chazelle has long described this as a “men on a mission” movie and not a traditional biopic, and indeed the first reactions to the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival praise Chazelle’s gritty, grounded take on the story.
While one might caution against hyperbole, Variety’s Owen Gleiberman straight-up calls First Man “revelatory” in its realism, saying it makes Apollo 13 look like a puppet show by comparison:
First Man bears the same relation to the space dramas that have come before it that Saving Private Ryan did to previous war films. The movie redefines what space travel is — the way it lives inside our imagination — by capturing, for the first time, what the stakes really were.
Apparently the film is told entirely from the perspective of the NASA astronauts, so the audience isn’t privy to sweeping wide shots or objective scenes—we’re put in the POV of Armstrong and his crew as they embark on this daring, incredibly dangerous mission. Praise is heaped on cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who won the Best Cinematography Oscar for La La Land, with The Film Stage’s Leonardo Goi describing his work as evoking that of Emmanuel Lubezki:
Shot by Linus Sandgren (La La Land, American Hustle), First Man echoes a Lubezki-like aesthetic, the camera effortlessly flowing with Gosling as he plays around with the kids and whispers into his daughter’s ears. Some images recall The Tree of Life, but their gentle beauty is brutally juxtaposed with the terrifyingly claustrophobic camerawork inside various spacecrafts, in a game of point-of-view and outstanding sound design that — in line with the film’s sanitized and anti-bombastic flair — portrays them less as technological wonders, more like howling metallic graves.
In his positive review from THR, David Rooney praised Ryan Gosling’s controlled performance, which many are noting lacks flash and glamour in favor of zeroing in on Armstrong’s focused nature:
Gosling pulls you in on an intimate level, whether Neil is tackling life-or-death situations mid-mission or simply staring at the moon from his backyard, as if the distant image somehow holds the secret to a successful landing. It’s a subdued, almost self-effacing performance that nonetheless provides the drama with a commanding center.
Jessica Kiang at The Playlist also gives the film positive notice, but makes a point echoed in many of these reviews, that First Man is decidedly not expressly patriotic:
But amid all the things that First Man is, it’s also notable for what it is not. There’s minimal flag-waving here, making it a universal story about tenacity and sacrifice, rather than anything more overtly patriotic. That’s a good thing, but it means that politics are dialed right back in general, with only some Vietnam War footage playing on background TV screens and one moment in which Gil Scott-Heron‘s “Whitey On The Moon” sounds out, making a particularly pointed comment on the social context of the era.
It sounds as though Chazelle has crafted a very nuts-and-bolts drama here (again, he’s long described it as a “men on a mission” movie) that’s less interested in philosophical or political happenings than the mere fact that these young men took up what very well could have been a suicide mission, all in the name of space exploration. And by most accounts, the filmmaking is of pristine quality—so look out, Oscars.
I can’t wait to see this thing. Look for Collider’s own review of the film out of TIFF next week. First Man opens in theaters on October 12th.