After bursting onto the Hollywood scene with Whiplash then conquering it with La La Land, one could be forgiven for expecting that prodigious director Damien Chazelle would be making another jazz-inspired musical film. However his 3rd feature film, entitled First Man, is quite the subversion of these expectations. Directing a biopic of NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, following his journey to become the first man to walk on the moon, was a bold but exciting move for Chazelle as he attempts to flex his (let’s face it) colossal directing muscles once again. Brought to life by the sublime Ryan Gosling, First Man aimed to depict a different side to arguably humanity’s greatest achievement, something that Chazelle and co. have done without seemingly breaking a sweat.
The man behind the myth
Often biopics come across as exaggerative in nature, be it either their stories being beefed up for dramatic effect or the actor aiming for Oscar glory by forcing an over the top performance; but for First Man, this couldn’t be further from the case. Considering the first moon landing is history’s most debated topic, Chazelle managed to present an unexpected, heartfelt take on how Armstrong made it to the moon. Focusing on his early career and family life means a film based on space exploration remains firmly grounded, detailing the multitudes of personal tragedies and obstacles that Armstrong overcame to make history. Unveiling this hidden side to the story enabled a real emotional connection to be formed between the audience and Armstrong, and there are many moments of pure poignancy where it’s easy to be overwhelmed as a viewer, such is the heart-wrenching nature of Armstrong’s true story.
Undoubtedly though, the film’s emotional backbone is anchored by a stellar performance from Gosling, who once again exhibits his arguably unrivalled range. His withdrawn, internalised depiction of Armstrong is astoundingly moving, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s use of close-ups only cease to assist in creating an Oscar worthy piece of acting. Gosling’s critics often accuse him of never saying very much, but such is the calibre of this performance in particular that proves the doubters wrong. It is not what Armstrong says, but what he doesn’t that earmark this as an awards worthy performance. The intensity behind Gosling’s eyes allows the viewer to comprehend the man Armstrong was behind the stories, he’s able to portray a man so exhausted by tragedy yet so driven to make history its almost unfathomable that it’s based on a true story. It’s going to be a close race for Best Actor this year, and it would be a shock not to see Gosling’s name firmly in the running.
Acting almost as a foil to the introspective performance by Gosling was Claire Foy, who’s fiery portrayal of Janet Armstrong may feel more like it fits the awards criteria, yet feels strangely forced at times. It’s not to say it isn’t a strong performance, she is able to flit between emotions and shine through at points, just not to nearly the same extent as Gosling. The strong ensemble cast is rounded up by the likes of Kyle Chandler and Jason Clarke, but a humorous performance by Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin was a surprising entry to the film that further increased its strong entertainment value.
A space-age technical marvel
Technically speaking, it is impossible to find a fault with First Man, such is the extent of talent on display across the board. Chazelle directs with ease, never allowing the film to go off the rails, keeping it tense at every turn and finding perfect harmony between telling a human story and a technical one. Josh Singer’s screenplay is equally as moving as it is humorous, an unexpected addition that certainly enables the viewer to take a minor pause from the film’s blistering speed.
An absolute highlight of First Man’s technical elements is the aforementioned Sandgren’s camerawork, featuring such an atypical utilisation of close-ups, tracking and wide shots and even succeeding in using point of view shots, a trope often associated with mediocre action flicks, of which this film certainly does not fit the mould. The textual differences between the Earth and space settings, the different use of film and IMAX cameras is inventive and really gels perfectly with the film’s themes. The close-up work in particular, specifically in the capsule scenes where the distance between the camera and Armstrong feels almost claustrophobic, as if the viewer is being intrusive and invading Armstrong’s personal space, which makes for simultaneously uncomfortable but richly absorbing viewing. It is a beautiful looking film, and certainly the Apollo 11 launch sequence and subsequent lunar landing sequence provide jaw-dropping moments from which the viewer is left in total awe.
As astounding as the film looks, it would be an absolute insult not to mention the achievements in sound editing that First Man so effortlessly puts on display. Every bit of machinery, each nut and bolt tightened into place and pushing of a button is like listening to a blacksmith’s hammer singing off metal, it’s safe to say space travel has never sounded so satisfying. The ability to risk having no sound when filming outside the spacecraft is a gamble that pays off drastically, the film seamlessly flitting between the loud drama inside the capsule and the silent void outside of it. Accompanied by an omnipresent yet subtle Justin Hurwitz score that injects a triumphant emotion into the film, feeling like a perfect blend of 2001, Interstellar and La La Land, it’s arguably the score of the year so far. As far as the technical side of the awards season goes, it seems like First Man is undoubtedly the film to beat at this very moment.
Simply put, First Man is not a run of the mill biopic. There’s no need to exaggerate a story already so extraordinary, no need for Ryan Gosling to try hard to become an over the top Neil Armstrong, his introverted personality perfectly characterised in an Oscar worthy performance. First Man is breathless, beautiful, uncomfortable and intoxicating all at once, hard to watch but impossible to look away from, and it seems as if once again Damien Chazelle has directed a film destined for an array of Oscar nominations. Regardless of whether you believe we landed on the moon or not, there’s no denying the achievements of everyone involved in the making of this film.
Words by Elliott Jones