Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke
Running time: 141 minutes
US astronaut Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his colleagues at NASA prepare to do the unthinkable and pilot the first mission to successfully land on the moon. Their journey to the stars, however, is wrought with danger.
The best compliment that can be paid to First Man is that, even in the knowledge that Armstrong and co. eventually set foot upon the lunar turf (whoopsie, SPOILER!), this remains an immersive, pulsating journey of the highest cinematic order.
Quickly crash-landing – quite literally – into the early 1960’s, First Man follows the life of infamous astronaut Neil A. Armstrong during the years of training, testing and personal tribulation leading up to the historical Apollo 11 mission during the summer of ’69 (insert your own Bryan Adams joke here…).
But, for a film that tells the story of a moon landing, this isn’t really a story about space at all.
Instead, after a blistering opening sequence that sees Armstrong manoeuvre a rickety aircraft back through Earth’s atmosphere, First Man boldly shifts things down a few gears and simmers to a steady, patient narrative tempo – the type that would probably make J.K. Simmons hurl a chair across the room at you – where technological developments are secondary to the developments in character.
From there, Armstrong is pummelled by earth-shattering tragedy, and it is within this space that Chazelle, and Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer (with a script adapted from James R. Hansen’s official biography), masterfully use physical exploration to weave an intricate, allegorical exploration into loneliness, tragedy, and the impact of grief.
Quickly embodying the inner turmoil of a man struggling to come to terms with the sobering realisation of life’s injustices, Armstrong becomes increasingly introverted and removed, making a habit of isolating himself from the world he exists in, refusing to embrace his own emotional frailty, and finding very little solace in those closest to him. Much like the gleaming, solitary spectacle above, he is a lonely, enigmatic figure whom both family and colleague wish to continuously unravel and explore. As such, Armstrong’s true motivations for wanting to leave earth seem hidden in plain sight, as Chazelle’s film gradually transitions from one of national triumph and accomplishment to a delicate and intimate character study of personal escape and redemption that looks inward as much as it gazes upward. Quite simply, First Man is man first.
When compared to the kinetic, frantic pacing of Chazelle’s previous outings, First Man occasionally runs the risk of being slightly too slow for some; however, this is arguably Chazelle’s most accomplished and immersive work to date. With the decision to shoot large portions on 16mm film, First Man’s visual identity wonderfully comes to the fore, giving the film an understated beauty and authenticity that lends itself perfectly to Chazelle and Singer’s astute attentiveness to their human angle (we could just as easily be watching clips from a ‘60’s home video). Equally impressive is Chazelle’s abstinence from a plethora of CGI-laden establishing shots which so often permeate the genre. First Man, instead, goes off-piste to uphold a sustained focus on character, regularly limiting the frame to facial close-ups that capture each wondering gaze, each panic-stricken stare, each meaningful exchange.
During its more high-octane moments, however, Chazelle’s camera becomes, by contrast, shaky, claustrophobic and disorientating. Just as Scorsese made the decision to place his camera in the boxing ring for Raging Bull, Chazelle puts us right in the terrifying midst of the astronauts’ various shuttle tests and trial runs. Combining close-ups with POV shots and – as we’ve come to expect of Chazelle – masterful sound design, we hear every deafening crank, unnerving creak, unsettling rattle of strained metal and the accompanying fearful exhale of those helplessly cramped inside. And in doing so, Chazelle unapologetically reminds us not of the majesty of their voyage, but of the very tangible dangers of space travel where, despite venturing into the unknown, one thing is certain: death is never far away.
The editing is equally slick and purposeful. Cutting seamlessly between reality and flashback, First Man is able to convincingly convey meaning and emotion often without the need for words. One sequence – a seemingly random intercutting between a mission de-brief and press conference – offers up magnificently poignant insight into how Armstrong’s life – and emotional stability – is constantly under interrogation; a view that eventually bears impactful fruit later when a dinner table scene, quite literally, hits home.
As he has done on countless occasions, Gosling confidently showcases his innate ability to powerfully articulate a complex weight of emotion through very little expression at all. As the star-gazing protagonist, he successfully continues his streak of constructing central characters who offer up very little from what they say, but instead use a blend of speech and silence to conceal layers of deep-rooted secrets and vulnerability. It might be one small step for man, but this is perhaps one giant leap for Gosling’s chances of Oscar glory.
The strength of such a portrayal, however, stems largely from the compelling performances of those around him. And through actor-of-the-moment Claire Foy – here playing Armstrong’s wife, Janet – we have one that quietly steals the show from under Gosling’s very nose. As a woman who remains fiercely loyal and compassionate despite fruitless endeavours to connect with her closed-book of a husband, and knowing full-well she could become a widow at any moment, Foy gives a powerfully understated turn. As the vessel through which the audience invest their emotions, she is the bedrock upon which the narrative is able to elevate above and beyond the realms of mere spectacle.
In the famous words of R.E.M, Chazelle has, if you believe, put a man on the moon – and done a mighty fine job of doing it too. First Man is firmly up there with the very, very best. Simply out of this world.