Director Damien Chazelle made a name for himself with his intense breakthrough film, Whiplash. He raked in the plaudits with his dazzling follow up, La La Land. And with the beautiful First Man, he cements himself as one of the most excitingly bold filmmakers around.
Ryan Gosling plays the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. This is his story, quite literally. Though he will go down in history for his feats in exploration, and for being the poster boy for America’s triumph in the space race against Russia, First Man eschews the clutter that covering the political background of the mission to the moon would undoubtedly have brought, rather choosing to focus with a sharp intensity on the man at the centre of it all. There’s no gung-ho back-slapping over Nasa’s (remarkable) accomplishments, or even of those of Armstrong himself, really. Instead, it’s the continued personal tragedy that surrounds Armstrong and how his career impacts upon him and his family which is moved to the forefront.
Armstrong’s strained relationship with his wife Janet (national treasure Claire Foy) following the aftermath of the death of their child is explored with uncomfortable closeness, the camera pushing in tight on the pain-filled eyes of the couple as they endure their loss. Both Gosling and Foy drive themselves into awards contention, the former restrained, his emotions bottled up, bubbling beneath the surface, the latter etched with a perpetual sadness. If – almost by design – Armstrong is a little difficult to entirely connect with, there’s no such issue in being empathetic of Janet’s plight. There’s a scene in the second half in which Armstrong is faced with explaining to his children that he might not survive his trip to the moon which encapsulates the family’s often tragic life perfectly.
And although the risks of his career are writ large throughout the film, the three trips which he takes into space that punctuate each the beginning, middle and end are so awe-inspiring that you can nearly understand why he’s risking piling further sorrow on his family in the name of walking on a distant rock in the stars. Each crams you into a claustrophobic cockpit, every bump and bang amplified as Armstrong hurtles through and about the earth’s atmosphere. Justin Hurwitz’s gorgeous minimalist score crescendoes into a rousing cacophony of sound. And then silence. Armstrong finds peace in the vast unknown. It’s a film about loss, sacrifice and achievement, not for humanity, but for one man. The first man.
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