Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian d'Arcy James
Runtime: 141 Minutes
The recurrent themes throughout director Damien Chazelle’s recent works have concerned the nature of obsession, passion and loss in the pursuit of achieving one’s dreams – and often how much the can be ultimately worth the pain and suffering often required to attain such impossible goals.
These ideas are more literally realized than ever in First Man, a biographical drama about Neil A. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) with a marketing campaign touting his famed accomplishments as a depiction of “the most dangerous mission in history”. Following the actions of the men who marked the peak of Kennedy era optimism and the moment they worked to that came to define them as individuals.
The now established dream team of director Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz and DP and editor Linus Sandgren and Tom Cross respectively, have delivered a magnificent looking and sounding picture – Hurwitz’s score, in particular, makes great use of small motifs and lonely Theremin sounds.
It’s an unexpected project for Chazelle given his past work, offering up a mostly unshowy aesthetic that relies on a blend of different film stocks to differentiate its environments. Many of the scene’s at home with the Armstrong family are handheld, with a documentary and verité style similar to Chazelle’s first work.
It maintains that intimacy even in its flight sequences, with cameras placed within the pods pressed to the visors of the characters in dark contained spaces, and fitted to the exterior of the ship in a majority of the space set sequences to put us in the same disoriented perspective of Neil.
The emphasis that the film plays up better than any hand it deals is that being an astronaut is a dangerous, claustrophobic, isolating and occasionally terrifying experience. Strapping human beings into small metal structures barely held together with bolts and wire and firing them into space atop massive fuel ignited explosions.
That sense of danger is felt in every sequence, realized through a fantastic blend of digital effects, location shooting, and good old-fashioned miniatures and background projection that make space travel feel as astonishing a feat of engineering as it should. Audiences will want to strap in for the tension fuelled space sequences, especially the catastrophic events of the Gemini 8 mission.
Consisting of a large ensemble cast of male actors – some with impeccable resemblances to their real-life counterparts – everyone is pulling their weight even when they’re not given much to do but exist to fulfil their roles and support Gosling. Patrick Fugit, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin probably feel like the most well used of the bunch.
Gosling is unsurprisingly very well cast here, with a dialled back and muted performance making the best use out of his abilities to stoically gaze with intensity and a reserved emotional temperament that makes him suited to portraying an individual of this generation and mindset.
Although much fuss has been made over the liberties it makes with history in regard to the planting of the American flag on the moon, instead presenting this more as a feat of human endeavor than one that is uniquely American (although it’s political climate backdrop is continually referenced), the bigger concern might be that in an age where features such as Hidden Figures and Mercury 13 have emphasized the importance of women and people of colour in the NASA efforts, that this might be identified more as an endeavour of masculine will.
Enter Claire Foy, who takes on the role of Janet Shearon, Armstrong's first wife, and endows her with more dimension, humanity, warmth and ferocity than has been afforded the now standard role of the ‘woman back home’ recentlt when it comes to biopic depictions of the endeavours of men. Foy is astonishingly good here, disappearing into the role completely with a balanced effect to her mannerisms and countenance in the smaller moments as she does when she’s fighting with Neil about his inability to talk with his children the night before he has to leave for his fateful mission.
The scripting duties belong to Josh Singer, and it’s every bit as convincing, dense and heavily researched as his prior earth-based journalism dramas, relying on the evidence and documented history aspects to structure it’s decades worth of events into something understandable without having to resort to nostalgic lenience or streamlining the harsh truths and deaths of the many individuals involved in the trial and error periods pre-launch.
However, all of this comes with one particular caveat that arrives in the form of a running subplot involving the early death of Armstrong’s youngest daughter due to a brain tumour. It’s a tragic event that thoroughly shakes Neil’s worldview and his unwavering faith in the powers of numbers and science, as all the contemporary advances in the world at the time were not enough to save her, and it builds a strong theoretical backbone to Neil’s arc as he returns to his confidence in science as a prosperous pursuit that can expand beyond a technological function in an already turbulent sociopolitical climate.
It’s completely understandable why this is a part of the narrative, but while it features early on and occasionally crops back up throughout in exchanges (or rather the lack of exchanges as Neil refuses to speak about it for the longest time) it’s almost forgotten about once the film hits its stride of portraying the procedural aspects of Neil’s professional life and the various successes and failures made in order to get to the moon.
Only once we finally get there, following a fantastic landing sequence, does it rear its head again to form a summary of Armstrong’s journey and mindset that doesn’t feel entirely clear. Not that the sentiment doesn’t exist, but what exactly it’s trying to say (especially in its final scene) feels intentionally vague for good or ill, and not everyone will walk away with the same thing to take from it. Some will see the entire effort as a means of Armstrong trying to cope, others might see it as something else entirely, but the film doesn’t seem to have a solid confirmation of this either way.
It’s hard to believe that it has taken this long for Hollywood to produce the definitive ‘moon landing’ film outside of the excellent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. But it’s finally here, and it’s every bit as thrilling, engaging and technically and visually audacious as many could have hoped for. Even in the face of its more mundane methods of dramatic pretence, it’s a film as hopeful and driven by the ambitious applications of science and engineering as its central character.