Release date: 12th October 2018/Watch the trailer here
After becoming the youngest ever winner of the Academy Award for Best Director for his 2016 film La La Land, Damien Chazelle makes his return with First Man, the true story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon. Set between the years 1961 – 1969, the film is told through the eyes of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), exploring the effects of the sacrifices made by Armstrong and the cost of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
Admittedly, this is one story that everyone already knows the ending to – but First Man is surprisingly personal in its approach to presenting those nine years of Armstrong’s life. The focus is, primarily, on Armstrong as a person rather than as an astronaut, offering an intimate glance into the consequences of the mission and their impact on Armstrong, his children and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). The way in which First Man spends so much of its runtime presenting the lives of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as so exceedingly ordinary while on Earth only serves to make the juxtaposition of seeing those same, ordinary human beings in space or on the moon all the more astonishing.
Because of this, the small moments are just as powerful as the bigger, grander ones. This is helped by two excellent, but incredibly different, performances from Gosling and Foy. As Armstrong, Gosling is remarkable at portraying a man who, on the outside, appeared to be devoid of all emotion – to the immense frustration of both his wife and the audience – while in utter turmoil internally. Foy, on the other hand, grounds the audience and offers them something to connect with, giving a highly-charged, compelling performance, laden with the kind of emotion and intense longing that Armstrong was seemingly incapable of expressing.
However, First Man is still, ultimately, a film about the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and the moon landing sequence which, inevitably, acts as the film’s climax, is flawless. Shot with IMAX cameras – as opposed to the grainy, period-defining look of the rest of the film – the moon appears crisp, clear and breathtakingly silent, perfectly conveying the sheer magnitude of the situation. This acts as a complete contrast to First Man’s other space-set scenes – the Gemini 8 mission, for example – which are entirely stripped of all romanticism, instead depicted as hellish, terrifying experiences for all involved. With relentless shaky cam, deafening sound design, and claustrophobic close-ups filmed from within the spacecrafts, the combined effect is frequently overwhelming for the audience, even going so far as to be unpleasant to watch at times. These are the moments in First Man that best establish the heroism of the people involved, and the devastating sacrifices that were made along the way – with Chazelle’s decision to unflinchingly convey just how frightening being an astronaut was, with none of the grandeur and all of the horror.
It’s to Chazelle’s testament as an exceptionally talented filmmaker that First Man has both tension and suspense, despite the outcome of the story it’s telling being so widely known. From an entertainment perspective, First Man might not be on a par or quite as instantly re-watchable as La La Land or Chazelle’s breakthrough film, Whiplash, but it’s still an incredibly well-made and impeccably crafted film, with little to find fault with on a technical level. With a filmography as impressive as Chazelle’s, to say that First Man is perhaps his weakest film yet is still the furthest thing possible from an insult – it’s just not quite his third masterpiece.