FIRST MAN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Damien Chazelle

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Olivia Hamilton, Ciaran Hinds, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas.

Ryan Gosling in First Man (2018)Oscar winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle has quite a resume to his credit. He who gave us the superb drama Whiplash, which was my top film of 2014. He followed that with La La Land, a colourful and kitsch homage to the old Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, but I was not quite as enamoured with it as many other critics seemed to be. Now Chazelle makes what is arguably his most ambitious film to date, with First Man. This epic drama charts a decade of NASA’s involvement in the space race in the 60s, with both the Gemini and Apollo missions, but the main focus is on astronaut Neil Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling) and his obsession with space exploration and becoming the first man on the moon.

Armstrong cemented his place in history when in July 1969 he became the first man to set foot on the moon, thus fulfilling JFK’s dream articulated during his inauguration address. First Man is based on the book from Pulitzer nominated author James R Hansen, and it has been adapted for the screen by Josh Singer (the Oscar winning Spotlight, etc). The film explores in some detail the technical achievements and preparations and sacrifices necessary for man to reach the moon, and it reeks of authenticity. There was a huge cost to pay though as many astronauts lost their lives along the way. Chazelle strove hard to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of his depiction of the challenges and anxieties facing the astronauts and the inner workings and politics of NASA itself. Chazelle has also incorporated some archival footage to give us a feel for the times.

First Man is something of an immersive and visceral experience that takes us inside the claustrophobic confines of the spacecraft, which look like they are held together by little more than nuts and bolts. We experience the rickety and vibrating craft in the opening scene, set inside the cockpit of a test plane, which is unnerving and almost motion-sickness inducing. The film has been shot by Chazelle’s regular cinematographer Linus Sandberg, who often works in closeup, which adds to the claustrophobic feeling, but also lends an intimacy to some scenes. Some portions of the film set on the grey, dusty and desolate lunar surface have been shot in the IMAX format, and they are quite spectacular and capture its ethereal and eerie quality. The special effects are also very effective. In one scene, Chazelle also cribs from the Kubrick playbook with the shot of a rocket gracefully moving through space accompanied by a classic musical score. Some superb production design from Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, Interstellar, etc) effectively captures the look and feel of the era.

Armstrong is depicted as a cold and emotionally detached and distant man, driven and more obsessed with his work than in connecting with his family. In one of his best performances Gosling, reunited with Chazelle, perfectly captures this side of Armstrong that the public rarely saw. He captures his stoic nature, his control and contained, buttoned down emotions. He is consumed by grief over the death of his young daughter, a tragic event that shaped much of his personality.

We also get some insight into the psyche of Janet, his long suffering but patient wife, and her frustrations with Neil and her fears every time he embarks on a new mission. Claire Foy (from tv series The Crown, etc) brings a warmth and intelligence to her performance, but she also conveys her inner strength and independence. Foy shines in an emotionally charged scene in which she harangues Neil to sit down and talk to his two sons on the eve of his departure for the historic Apollo 11 mission.

The ensemble supporting cast includes Corey Stoll as fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and it captures the tensions and rivalry between the two. Australian Jason Clarke plays doomed astronaut Edward White, while Chazelle’s wife Olivia Hamilton plays White’s wife. Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry and Lukas Haas round out the cast. But their characters are largely ciphers who don’t register strongly with the audience.

However, First Man is a little dull at times and the pacing seems uneven. This is not the richly cinematic treatment that both the momentous achievement or Armstrong himself deserved. The best films that have explored the space race include Phillip Kaufman’s epic and factual 1983 drama The Right Stuff, which focused on the Mercury missions, and the tense true life story of Apollo 13. There was also Silent Running, which had an environmental message as well, and of course Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. And here purely as a guilty pleasure was Peter Hyams’ gripping 1978 thriller Capricorn One, that played on those conspiracy theories that the moon landing was faked.

★★★☆

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