It’s pretty remarkable that, considering how many films and mini-series there are about the glory days of the American Space Program, no film has ever specifically tackled perhaps the most significant technical achievement in human history - the first time a human being stepped onto the moon - or more specifically, who that human being was. As his first project since winning his Best Director Oscar for ‘La La Land’, Damien Chazelle has taken on this most impossible human achievement and, in the process, given us a window into the man Neil Armstrong was.
‘First Man’ touches on key moments in the life of Neil (Ryan Gosling, 'La La Land', ‘Blade Runner 2049’, 'Crazy, Stupid, Love.') and his wife Janet (Claire Foy, ‘Unsane’, TV's 'The Crown') in the years leading up to the mission. After the loss of their young daughter, Neil throws himself into the Gemini program, the precursor and preparation for the Apollo missions. The rising body count and public criticism of the program puts added pressure on the astronauts and their families, and as Neil approaches the most dangerous mission ever attempted, his relationship with his family is put to the test.
Following up his Oscar-winning musical marvel ‘La La Land’ with the story of Neil Armstrong may seem like an odd move for Chazelle, but what he crafts with ‘First Man’ is a remarkable, often miraculous cinematic achievement, not only unlike anything we’ve seen from him before but unlike anything we’ve ever seen, full stop. Much has been written about the manner in which the film focuses in on the personal life of Neil and Janet as opposed to the sweeping scope of the space race, but by making ‘First Man’ a far more intimate film than one would have expected considering the subject matter, we’re given a film where the emotional scope is far greater and all the more rewarding. The journey we follow with Neil is a personal one, a journey to claim stability out of chaos, first with the death of his daughter and then the subsequent deaths of so many of his fellow astronauts. The film puts the Cold War needs of the Space Race secondary to its protagonist coming to grips with where life and death fit within his world, making the struggle to the moon personal as opposed to a major socio-political one. That intimacy extends from Josh Singer’s sparse screenplay to Linus Sandgren’s frenetic hand-held cinematography, often conducted entirely in close-up. Everything about ‘First Man’ feels immediate and personal, as if we’re looking through a window into a private world - Neil’s private world - where the need to be a good husband and parent is challenged by a need to make sense of the chaos around him and accept the very real possibility that he may be about to lose it all in the most dangerous of places. It’s an extraordinarily daring approach, but that focus on the internal lives of Neil and Janet not only makes the film a far more enriching emotional experience, but when it does open up its canvas in the vacuum of space, a significantly more powerful one.
As great as the moments of intimacy are, it’s the space sequences where ‘First Man’ moves into the sublime. The close-up convention follows the film into the cockpits of the Gemini 8 and the Apollo 11, and once we’re locked in with the astronauts, the film rarely leaves them. As a consequence, ‘First Man’ offers as visceral a portrait of the experience of early space travel as ‘Spielberg retrospective’ did for war. These sequences are terrifying, nail-biting, overwhelming, a symphony of freneticism and screaming metal, of cramped spaces, of human bodies and minds under extreme pressure. Chazelle does not compromise an ounce on capturing the fidelity and terror of the experience, each one progressively as intense as the next, before culminating in its final act with the lunar landing itself. Shot with IMAX cameras, it’s an almost operatic achievement, not only where the technological narrative but the emotional one comes crashing to its conclusion, an achievement not just for mankind but for this one man, seeking to find his place in the universe and find the peace he so desperately needs.
‘First Man’ further solidifies Damien Chazelle as one of the finest, most ambitious and most romantic filmmakers of his generation. His complete command of the tone, rhythm and scope of the film is often staggering, and it’s only at the end where you realise what a remarkable balancing act he has achieved, what an emotionally rich and deeply moving film he has constructed. It also feels like an evolution from his previous work, where the tension of ‘Whiplash’ and the romanticism of ‘La La Land’ mix with a new aesthetic of immediacy and spontaneity. ‘First Man’ is a beautiful film because of how visually frantic it is, a camera that’s rarely still and is infrequently interested in capturing aesthetic, which in turn earns the moments where it does the opposite. There’s such a strong, clear language between Chazelle and Sandgren, and it’s wonderful to see their creative partnership develop here. The same can be said of the work from composer Justin Hurwitz. His score for ‘First Man’ bucks convention for the most part, often an unusual fit tonally, but as with all of Hurwitz’s work, this score is deeply intelligent and intricately constructed, such as the theme for Neil and Janet becoming the enormous orchestral theme for the moon landing itself, further solidifying that this is a film about human beings rather than technology.
...by making ‘First Man’ a far more intimate film than one would have expected considering the subject matter, we’re given a film where the emotional scope is far greater and all the more rewarding.
The same quiet emotional core that permeates so much of the filmmaking also lies at the heart of the performances, particularly from Gosling and Foy. Gosling’s Neil is such a beautifully contained, quietly devastating performance, a composed demeanour betrayed by the pain and fear in his eyes, and his inability to let his guard down and properly connect with those around him. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking performance, made all the more so by the open generosity and passionate determination of Foy’s performance as Janet. She is not, and refuses to be, the affected wife back home, instead demanding humanity and understanding from her husband. Their intense chemistry results into moments both beautiful and harrowing, seeing this family pushed to the brink by the very real possibility that Neil may never return.
It’s that sense of danger, ever present and palpable, that makes ‘First Man’ such a powerful and moving experience. By placing us within this family, by attaching us to this extraordinarily ordinary man’s life, and by locking us inside with him as he attempts the most impossible of human endeavours, it connects us with him and with this incredible moment in history on a deep and personal level. ‘First Man’ is a phenomenal achievement, a piece of pure cinema that reminds you of what the medium is capable of. I left the cinema giddy, shaking and still crying, elated at what a jaw-dropping and emotionally satisfying experience it was. As the credits rolled, I was already dying to see it again. This is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen (if you can see it at IMAX, you must, the moment the film switched formats is one of the best uses of the IMAX format I’ve ever seen). It will leave you marvelling at the ability of our species to dream, to invent, to strive and to survive.