First Man is a biographical drama based on the life of Neil Armstrong, who became the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. This is a film from Whiplash and La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle, who is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s brightest talents after a string of excellent films. The film stars Ryan Gosling who is supported by Claire Foy and Jason Clarke in a historical drama that immerses itself in the life and times.
The haircuts, make up, wardrobe, sets and general demeanour have all been meticulously transposed to give us a sense of the otherness, making First Man out of this world on a number of levels. From a visceral opening sequence that gives us a foretaste of the intensity of some of the later scenes, we quickly realise that we are in for one helluva ride. Cleverly transporting us back in time, the film hinges largely on Gosling’s performance as the handsome actor dominates proceedings with an admirable and stoic turn as Neil Armstrong.
It’s quite surprising that there hasn’t been more in the way of biographical dramas relating to the moon landing, which based on First Man, is fraught with drama over the space expedition’s build up in the race against the Russians. You get a real sense for the desperation on the part of the Americans, who were second in most of the major space achievements. This is why so much was thrown behind the moon landing and its all-important success story. What most people who have a general understanding of NASA and its space exploration don’t know – is just how many things went awry in the buildup to this mission.
Chazelle is deft, giving one the impression that something could still go wrong even when you know the eventual outcome. The touch-and-go feel and cutting edge space technology for its time keeps you invested in the hero’s journey. Anchored by retro consoles and a pragmatic approach to design, this was an age of tough, where men were truly pushing the boundaries of physics… wanting to go faster, higher and further. First Man goes headlong into this age of gender roles, drawing attention to the imbalance in the story’s flight path and gentle landing.
“Turns out, quite a few small steps for man…”
Gosling is a terrific actor, who is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan in terms of his approach – usually delivering cool, dark and weighty performances than tending to the lighter and warmer side of human nature. While he is captivating, one never quite feels that he is making himself vulnerable enough, turning this cold shoulder performance into more of a vehicle then a conduit for the human experience. Struggling to truly identify with him beyond the call of ambition and unquestionable patriotism, his lead role underwrites the tone for the film, which is a bit soulless.
His supporting cast are quite brilliant, helping to steady the ship like copilots. Claire Foy is a wonderfully talented actress who manages to sink into roles as she does in First Man, playing his wife Janet. Then, almost unrecognisable, and looming large as a contemporary is Jason Clarke as Ed White. Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll add even more polish to this ensemble with some great casting calls, managing to breathe life and a real sense of personality into these headstrong characters.
Chazelle’s films have always been stylistically resonant and ambitious, from Whiplash’s darker hues and claustrophobic intensity to the dreamscape and twilight rainbow colours of La La Land. In First Man he creates intimacy by closing in on his actors, allowing us to get the full nuance of their performances, while being quite restrained in terms of the washed out colour scheme. Tending towards close-ups, there is a sense of claustrophobia that creeps in, keeping things quite alien and intense, standing uncomfortably close to the action. From being in the space capsule to lounging by the pool, there’s a great contrast between the frenetic lives on earth and the equally intense space expedition in the big wide open.
The swaying cinematography keeps you off-balance and takes some pressure off the mis-en-scene, but does become a bit nauseating – especially if you’re closer to the screen. While it certainly adds tension, a steadier viewpoint could have made the overall experience less vicarious. Then, as if almost invisible… the visual effects are used sparingly and add to the sense of realism, driven by a purposeful soundtrack.
First Man is an exciting and compelling film that blends strong performances with an informative historical journey, using strong production values to immerse you in the zeitgeist while punctuating the story with intense action scenes. Dazzling, heroic, gritty, raw and even beautiful to behold despite its rattling intensity, First Man is another great film from Damien Chazelle, which while restrained by its cold undercurrent remains quite breathtaking in its execution, powered home by a top ensemble, who are able to lean into a well-thought out screenplay that bursts with steely-eyed ambition.
The bottom line: Breathtaking