Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and an incredible Jason Clarke; and directed by La La Land and Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, First Man is a flawed but beautiful retelling of the Apollo program at NASA. Masterfully shot and incredibly gripping, this is a movie that aims for the moon and reaches it with just a few hiccups along the way.
'First man' opens, just like this generation's other space epic 'Interstellar', with the protagonist - astronaut Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling - piloting a jet fighter. The camera jitters and shakes as Armstrong wrestles to gain control of the vehicle - and then crashes down to Earth. Cut to an operating room in which Armstrong's daughter Karen is undergoing chemoterapy. Armstrong and wife, played by an oscar-worthy Claire Foy, are watching from behind a glass panel, crying.
For the epic space opera it is, 'First Man' is an incredibly human movie. It is not a bombastic piece of propaganda, it's not about making America great again, it's not about the space-faring heroes of NASA and, in fact, is not even about the moon landing - which takes up less than a tenth of the movie's majestic 150 minutes.
That's quite refreshing, but not entirely unexpected from a director of Chazelle's caliber. Indeed, just like 'La La Land' and 'Whiplash', 'First Man' takes its genre's rules and entirely subverts them, going for a character study and long, introspective sequences rather than for the cheap thrills the trailer(s) were promising.
On that front, 'First Man' is an astounding success. It is an incredibly suspenceful movie, even when nothing happens. And yes, regardless of what the critics are saying, this is a very slow movie - especially for 2018 standards. But that's fine, because by taking it slow 'First Man' actually gives the Apollo program and its characters the gravitas they deserve with just a few brush strokes each.
The most important of these characters is, obviously, Armstrong. A pragmatic and often witty man, the Apollo 11 mission commander is an incredibly convincing character; very well written and incredibly complex despite the limited dialogue. Gosling's take on Armstrong is, on the other hand, a lot less interesting and definitely a bit underdeveloped: Mr Gosling's trademark long faces, moody silences and tightened jaw are back - just like in 'Drive' and 'the Place Beyond the Pines'; at this point one has to wonder whether the actor is being type-cast, or he really has this limited a range of emotions and acting skills.
Luckily, the support cast is outstanding. Claire Foy, as Armstrong's wife, makes for an incredibly sharp and vibrant portrait of this outstanding woman. Jason Clarke, playing the heroic Ed White, both support and outshines Gosling's performance. And both Olivia Hamilton and Corey Stoll deliver two more outstanding characters and at least one memorable scene each (which we won't spoil).
The photography and editing represent the two other fields on which 'First Man' is effortlessly able to score. Barring a few too many shaky-cam shots, there's no superfluous fluff anywhere in this movie. The runtime is quite respectable, at almost two hours and a half, but that's because every detail, every event, every small step towards the 'giant leap for humanity' is incredibly well designed, realized, and shot.
And even with its gaze set on the moon, 'First Man' never really forgets to keep both feet steady on the ground. From the references to the Vietnam war, to Kennedy's moon speech, to an exceedingly memorable 'whitey on the moon' montage, this is a movie that never lets the incredible successes that NASA booked overshadow all the other events of the 60s and 70s.
And that's ultimately why 'First Man' is a great movie - and whatever little shortcomings it has are easily forgotten. Sure, it is not as epic as 'Interstellar', or profound as '2001- a Space Odissey', or breathtaking as 'Gravity'. But that's because 'First Man' is not a movie about space. It is a movie about the people who went there, "not because it's easy, but because it's hard". It is not a movie about a few heroes: it's an ensemble of voices. And it is not a perfect movie, but it aims for the moon.
And when all is said and done, my god, it lands on target.
Where to watch in Amsterdam: Definitely at Pathé (in IMAX) or at Kinepolis (in Dolby Cinema)
Known faces: Claire Foy (The Crown), Corey Stoll (House of Cards), Kyle Chandler (Carol, Wolf of Wall Street), Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zero Dark Thirty, Chappaquidditch), Olivia Hamilton (Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot), Ryan Gosling (every Ryan Gosling movie in which Ryan Gosling plays Ryan Gosling)