First Man (2018)
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Something a bit different from Damien Chazelle proving he’s not only capable of directing music-based films but can turn his hand to projects that require a new set of skills.
A biopic of the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), focused mainly on his life and work leading up to and including the Apollo space mission.
We know from the start that he will reach the moon, we even know exactly when and what he’ll say when he gets there, yet I still found it very dramatic. There are so many disasters along the way, each one reminding us that though we know Neil will survive, he so nearly could’ve suffered a different outcome.
Damien Chazelle wasn’t the writer of this, as he was with his two previous Oscar-winning movies, but shows he’s a capable director when the film calls for other skills and an entirely different way of storytelling. With ‘Whiplash’ there was conflict, musical mastery, and a large performance element. ‘La La Land’ had nostalgia, musical numbers, dancing and romance with the colours and style of theatricality. This is historical, factual, scientific, less prone to showy emotional displays.
Ryan Gosling proves why he wasn’t just the default pick for the lead role, giving a great performance in which he has to hold back his charm. Emotions are kept under the surface as Armstrong is shown to be a man who feels deeply but is reluctant to show it in public. There are scenes of personal reflection, even tears, where he takes some private time and needed space to come to terms with these feelings. The film does well to keep this visual, we’ve been following the story, can understand what he’s going through and why, so it doesn’t need unnecessary repetition or translating into dialogue. It’s a testament to the pairing of the director with Ryan Gosling, both know the power of depicting this in the right way and they have the skill and restraint to do so, something I saw from Gosling as far back as ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ in 2007, a film that you really should seek out and watch if you haven’t already seen it, early proof that Ryan Gosling could be much more than just a pretty heart-throb.
Alongside Gosling is Claire Foy, wonderfully cast as Janet Armstrong, who is his unwaveringly supportive wife though it clearly takes a great toll on her. She’s given some really powerful scenes in the film where Neil is not there or even involved, showing her strength and the way that she is dealing with challenges that are equally difficult, though more of an interpersonal nature.
The cast is filled out by some excellent actors with smaller roles, many of note and name, mostly figures involved in the space race. At times these roles are cut short through tragedy, though they rarely leave the film without at least one scene in which we get to know the character and their personality a little, giving the actors a chance to bring their research and preparation to bear on their roles. In this aspect it also adds a greater dimension to the history, it’s really interesting to see the involvement of the astronauts for the missions from the beginning, they don’t just come on board for the latter parts to man the craft, they are scientists and engineers first and foremost, so are involved in the project for years. This is a part of many space exploration films that is all too often underdeveloped, rushing to get to the more exciting moments and out into orbit.
Space scenes in this are actually really brilliant, they have not been eschewed to keep the film terrestrial for simplicity or budgetary reasons. When the story needs to go to space, it does. Cleverly though, Chazelle saves the most visually impressive shots for when the impact is needed and the feeling evoked applies to Armstrong himself, so the audience can experience enjoying the sense of wonder and amazement along with him.
The score, penned by Chazelle’s trusted collaborator Justin Hurwitz is beautiful. There are scenes in orbit where the arrangement gets very balletic and heightens the sense of wonder and beauty, then when we finally reach the moon, the score does change style and instrumentation to something more otherworldly.
It’s a great film, almost guaranteed to satisfy anyone interested in this part of history, I think it must be one of the best factual space exploration films, not over sensationalising events though dramatically conveying the full weight and danger of what they were attempting.
‘First Man’ is nominated for 7 BAFTAs and I would like to see it go home with at least one trophy, most likely for Claire Foy (though she’s up against tough competition). It is also nominated for 4 Academy Awards though I think it has slimmer chances of becoming an Oscar-winner, though Damien Chazelle has scored a hat trick of his films doing well with nominations so I’m looking forward to seeing what he brings us next.