2018’s annual space movie hits closer to home as a dramatic retelling of Neil Armstrong’s journey to be the first man on the Moon.
The biographical drama, First Man, is a gripping retelling of mankind’s first step on the Moon with a heart-wrenching, though stretched, emotional core. Damien Chazelle, director of the critically-acclaimed movies Whiplash and La La Land, tackles this film not as a sci-fi adventure, but as an intimate tale surrounding Neil Armstrong’s journey to be the first man on the Moon. Chazelle’s use of tight, close-up shots and shaky camera film techniques immerses the viewer in the emotion our characters our feeling, as well as the claustrophobia of cramped, metal spacecraft. Your breath is taken away as Armstrong spirals out of control in low orbit and you feel as though you are taken along for the ride. Very rarely does the unsteady camera make the image so disorientating that it’s difficult to interpret the scene, though there were moments where my eye was lost. It still captures the suburban feel of Houston, the blues the Earth’s sky, and the vast, blacks of outer space. The sound design, and the lack thereof, of this film is superb. The nuts and bolts, metal creaking, nylon suits crinkling, switches switching, every small action has superb detail. All the way from the little things to the bone-rattling roar of the Saturn V rocket. The score is sparse in this film to allow the characters to carry the film, but when it is used, it punctuates the emotional intensity of the moment. And when our three astronauts finally reach the surface of the moon, all sound is muted, as to replicate the deafening silence of space. Technically, from the directing to sound design to indistinguishable CGI, this film excels.
An Almost Stellar Cast
Ryan Gosling, coming off a hot streak of La La Land and Blade Runner 2049, plays the late closed-off astronaut and father, Neil Armstrong. The man kept to himself, with most details of his life coming from second-hand accounts, and this is accurately reflected in Gosling’s performance. He says few with his words, but his expressions and unwillingness to share speaks volumes. Claire Foy, best known for her role as the British Monarch in The Crown, plays his wife, Janet who is a dutiful mother, and a fierce woman. Her interactions with her family are strong, though at times seem misplaced in times of tension. The two of them share the burden of the death of their daughter and that weight is felt throughout the film. Her ferocity balances Gosling’s reserved act wonderfully. The film is truly carried by these two actors, unfortunately leaving the others by the wayside. Other notable figures in history such as Buzz Aldrin and Gus Grissom, played by Corey Stoll and Shea Whigham, are left with little to work with other than play out their historical roles, though they certainly do the best with what they have. When tragedy strikes, it feels less as a hit to the viewer, but more so as a blow to Armstrong’s mission.
The film covers almost a ten-year period, spanning from Project Gemini to the Moon landing. There are several time jumps that serve to cover nearly every major event in this decade. Time skips around so much that it almost leaves little room for the viewer to breath and reflect, and the impact of the emotional beats suffer as a result. Still, I was on the edge of my seat for the entirety of the 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. Everyone knows we succeeded in landing on the Moon, but it’s the journey that matters. The trial and error, the desperation to beat the Soviets, and the human spirit persevering through all the failures in order to succeed was enthralling. You want the Americans to prevail. You want them to keep trying as politics and public opinion tell them otherwise. You hold your breath as mankind learns to travel through space. It’s an inspiration story of the resolve of mankind to reach new frontiers. The ending of this film will be contested, however, as its artistic license with Neil Armstrong’s little known personal life is shown.
While it’s a story that has been told time and time again, First Man never fails to capture its audience’s attention through its stunning imagery, crisp sound design, and its wonderful performances from its two leads. The moon landing sequence alone makes this a must-see in full IMAX glory. Despite the lacklustre supporting cast, disjointed timeline, and perhaps unnecessary family drama, First Man is one giant leap for cinema.