There are few things that capture your imagination as a child quite like the thought of a man landing on the moon. With missions to Mars and even further space exploration just over the horizon, it is strange to think that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on that white circle in the sky only twenty years before I was born (that’s a significantly shorter span of time than the Spice Girls’ first hit to current day). I realised going in to the cinema for this one that besides the famous pictures and iconic quotes, I knew very little about the journey it took to get men on the moon. Hopefully First Man would put me right.
First Man, as the title might suggest, tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the former NASA test pilot who made his way through the Gemini and Apollo projects to selected as the commander for Apollo 11, the spaceflight that finally landed humans on the moon and dealt the winning blow in the space race for the United States of America. The film follows Armstrong’s personal and professional life from as far back as 1961, contrasting the devastating lows of the death of his infant daughter to the highs of setting foot on the lunar surface, and in my humble opinion, it is nothing short of a masterpiece.
These kinds of human achievement stories always manage to get me going, but in the case of First Man, it is a human achievement story crafted and executed by possibly the greatest director of his generation. Damien Chazelle’s fingerprints are all over this movie, and they look and feel like magic. It is hard to put in to words just what sets some direction apart from the rest, but whatever it is, Chazelle has it. The film feels so gritty in its depiction of space travel that it turns what children’s books portray as a wonderful, gravity free journey in to something closer to plummeting to the depths of hell. Some of the more dramatic and tension filled scenes in First Man are visceral enough to rival anything seen in last year’s Dunkirk. Viewers are subjected to the same kind of claustrophobia and panic, and it takes a master craftsman to be able to execute that in the way that the director does here. Outside of the stellar direction, the film also looks fantastic. There is a sharp cleanliness to the picture that feels reminiscent of La La Land, even though the subject matter couldn’t be more different. This is no surprise given the film boasts an identical director/cinematographer duo.
There is beautiful dichotomy running through the narrative, the sense that Armstrong invests all of his time on the Apollo missions to distract from his daughter’s passing, and when he has achieved the unachievable, standing on the edge of a moon crater with the distant earth in his peripheral vision, only then can he allow himself to grieve, far away from the scene of his tragedy and pain. It’s an incredibly emotional concept and one that is played with just the right amount of sentimentality. The fact that the filmmakers have been able to incorporate so much personal poignancy whilst also managing to capture that feeling of more general, worldwide pride and excitement at the events is what makes it so perfect. In my opinion, at least!
Ryan Gosling does a very good job of portraying Neil Armstrong, arguably one of the shyest men in the world who was forced to become one of the most famous. There is an almost robotic stiffness to Gosling’s performance, but believe me when I say that it is completely intentional. Armstrong was a man of very few words, and Gosling has more then enough experience to nail that kind of characterisation. His stoicism for the majority of the picture really punctuates the moments of emotion that break through the surface.
As his wife Janet, Claire Foy brings a strong and important female presence in to what can feel at times a like very masculine film. It might be a fun double bill to pair First Man with Hidden Figures to gain a much more equal gender perspective on NASA. Further impressive supporting performances are given by the likes of Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber and Christopher Abbott, but overall, as you might have gauged from this review already, First Man is one of those films, for me at least, in which the power and hand of the director is felt much more significantly than any of the on screen performers.
Overall, if you hadn’t already surmised, I happen to think that First Man is a total triumph. It isn’t a film that relies on twists and surprise endings, every single person on the planet know’s how the Apollo 11 mission ends. The brilliance of the picture is in the expert way that it relays the story to you, the personal drama, the unbelievably high stakes danger, the performances, the aesthetic, the brilliant score, and of course, the direction. Spike Lee certainly had me shook after BlacKkKlansman, but the undeniable genius of Damien Chazelle has won me over yet again. It’s really going to take something life altering to change my mind as to the destination of that particular Academy Award.