First Man (2018)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Josh Singer, James R Hansen (based on the book by)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Patrik Fugit
Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling team up once again for First Man, a biopic which is out of this world (corny, I know).
Going in it is important to bear in mind that First Man is a film about the moon landing insofar as there is a Moon landing at the (very) end of the film (spoiler alert). If you are expecting a gripping space thriller set on the hostile lunar surface, look elsewhere. In reality, the Moon itself is rather insignificant in this 2 hour long biopic (at least in a physical sense) - instead, as the title suggests, the main focus of Damien Chazelle's latest submission is the man who would eventually leave the first dusty footprint, astronaut Neil Armstrong.
In fact, the story of First Man begins almost a decade before the Eagle landed on the Moon, instead joining Armstrong in 1961 more than 100,000ft above the surface of the more familiar Earth. It is a rocky start for Armstrong, as he struggles to control his rocket-plane and bring it back to Earth safely. It is traumatic scene, shown almost entirely from the inside of the cockpit, rather than safely outside of it, forcing us to take this wild ride back to Earth right alongside Armstrong himself. It is an approach which is the magic ingredient of the whole film. The film sticks very closely to Armstrong, and everything is seen almost directly from his perspective, giving us a real understanding of his own personal voyage, and the personal and professional challenges he faced along the way. A later scene, during which Armstrong commands an ambitious low-Earth orbit mission, is arguably even more intense, as we serve as the third crew member leaving the Earth along with Armstrong and David Scott. Sitting the viewer right in the middle of a cramped, shaking and deafeningly loud spaceship as it hurtles towards the dark (frequent flashes to the crafts vibrating screws and rivets is a particularly cruel and nail-biting touch), Chazelle has exquisitely captured the unpredictability and danger of space flight. Getting into space is hard work, and Chazelle wants us to know that.
Juddering rockets are only a small part of the story though, and these moments of intensity are found deep within a far more thoughtful and tranquil film. The majority of films based on space exploration are typically thrilling adventures in which fearless astronauts encounter a multitude of disastrous problems...but these films are often largely fiction. First Man, on the other hand, stays loyal to the truth and does not neglect the bits of the story which may be considered less thrilling. It is a comprehensive account of one man's journey from test pilot to moonwalker, but don't expect to be on the edge of your seat throughout.
Gosling gives a fantastic performance as Neil Armstrong, capturing the quiet complexities of an extremely interesting character. Gosling portrays a man who is endlessly determined yet measured, remaining ceaselessly professional, so much so that this professionalism spills over into his family life, widening the emotional gulf between him and his family. Gosling's performance is one of suppression, his Armstrong preferring to show little emotion except for in a few private moments, so much so that he evidences little desire to go to the Moon. The result is a character with which identification is difficult, making his part in one of mankind's greatest achievements even more incredible. Claire Foy's loving Janet Armstrong mimics the audience as she struggles to understand and connect with him, while her building anxiety illustrates in a more emotional sense just how dangerous the Apollo mission was (as well as space travel in general).
Corey Stoll is the perfect casting choice for Buzz Aldrin - not only do the men look eerily similar, but Stoll's comfortable swagger easily manages to characterise Aldrin's egotism and abrasiveness. His screen-time is limited (after all, the film is not called Second Man), but Stoll does a lot with his few appearances, creating a real contrast between Aldrin and Armstrong with his approach to tragedy and ambition, perhaps amplifying the latter's seeming lack of desire to be the First Man.
Chazelle's biopic is a dedicated and detailed examination of one of the world's most famous astronauts. It can boast an impressive level of accuracy, both through the incredible design of its many sets and the diligent performances of its cast. The attention it gives to its main subject is commendable and resolute, allowing Gosling the space to deliver a ruminative portrayal of an incredible man.
In one line: First Man is a pensive study of one of space travel's most famous individuals, staying close to Armstrong throughout and taking the necessary time to tell one of mankind most startling stories.