To the reach the moon. At one time it stood as but a mere dream. But for a determined, disciplined and courageous pilot turned astronaut named Neil Armstrong it would be a quest that he would have to fulfill.
That is where director Damien Chazelle takes us in First Man and it’s an ambitious and utterly magnificent piece of cinema.
The riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969 and the sacrifices and personal cost—on Armstrong and on the nation to accomplish one of the most dangerous missions in history.
First Man is nothing short of an astonishing. Narrative, direction, casting, costuming, set decoration, special effects, visuals effects and musical score all come together to create an incredibly compelling piece of cinema that pulls your attention inwards and takes you on the journey of one man’s quest to be the best, reach the moon and touch the stars in the process.
From Whiplash to La La Land Damien Chazelle has shown that he has the makings of a modern age cinema autuer filmmaker and in my mind he solidifies that standing with First Man.
Grounding his film in deep emotion and themes of obsession and wonder, Chazelle chronicles one man’s single-minded pursuit for the stars, while also capturing the incredible bravery that was needed to the accomplish the mission. As a director Chazelle has already proven that he has a strong eye for detail and that is readily apparent here in First Man as he and his team painstakingly bring to life the realities of the 1960s space program and NASA when it was still a nuts and bolts organization. Everything has an emphasis on the practical rather than the aesthetic and you get a picture of just how intense the training regime was to put these men on the moon. The film’s detail is particularly amazing to behold and you definitely feel the claustrophobic confines that these astronauts experienced.
Ryan Gosling is an actor who never disappoints and here he gives another brilliant performance. His portrayal of Neil Armstrong is strikingly true to life and you get a vision of an uncompromising perfectionist and high-performance individual who was willing to do whatever it took to get to the moon. His commitment to the Moon Mission is all encompassing and this desire to reach the lunar surface separates him from all those around them.
In his personal life Armstrong was regarded as somewhat of a recluse and had a hard time interacting or relating to others and this is expertly captured here. Even with his wife Janet (Claire Foy), you feel a certain detachment from everything as his all-consuming desire for the Apollo mission pulls him away from everything in his life.
Gosling’s performance has a lot to do with what is not said and instead relies upon a sense of delayed reaction and repressed emotion and all of this creates a portrait of an obsessed genius who speaks with his actions, rather than with his voice. Make no mistake Armstrong was a hero of the highest order and his bravery borders on the extreme, but its interesting to see this portrait of a quiet achiever who does not ask for fame or glory, but simply wants to accomplish incredible things.
Standing beside Gosling and with a performance that in my opinion completely steals the entire movie is Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Janet and her performance is simply remarkable. Next to Gosling, Foy’s performance is the center piece of the movie and the one which really commands your attention. As the emotional core of the film you see in her the reaction of just how monumental this feat is and more importantly the cost that is brought to bare from the pursuit of lunar surface. At times you feel that Janet is the only sensible person in the entire room as she seems to grasp the bigger ramifications of the personal costs that these astronauts families have to suffer from their pursuit of solar glory.
Foy’s performance is tinged by concern and restlessness as she sees the intensity that Neil suffers through and the tragedy that befalls so many on the quest for the moon. Like Gosling her performance is again rather physical in nature and not reliant on vast amounts of dialogue. And while the relationship they share is estranged at times you get a deep sense of the love they hold for each other and the extraordinary things they allow each other to do.
In terms of visual spectacle First Man ranks up their with some of the best cinematography you’ll see all year. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures the film with a focus on natural light and neutral colours and it highlights the varying settings from the warmth and comfort of the Armstrong’s home to the cold, mechanized world of a still burgeoning NASA to the beautiful vistas that exist between the atmosphere and the stratosphere. Sandgren also captures the intense claustrophobia of these early rockets and just exactly what it feels like to be strapped inside a tin can placed on top of 5,000 kilo-tonnes of fuel that at any moment could burst ablaze from the most rudimentary of faults.
When Armstrong does eventually feel the power of lift-off he is thrust forward into the sky with thunderous speed and you feel every moment of it. Chazelle truly captures the ferocity of spaceflight and you really experience the intensity that gripped these astronauts as they blasted forth into the unknown. These moments are particularly heavy to witness and I could feel just how immense the achievement of the Apollo missions were after seeing these scenes unfold up on screen. These men broke through the stratosphere and reached the moon and it is an astonishing feat to behold.
Music also plays a large part in Chazelle’s film’s and First Man is no exception. Composer Justin Hurwitz crafts a beautiful, if haunting score that captures the loneliness, isolation and dreamlike quality of the moon. This sound is both romantic and edgy all at the same time and this score really stands apart from others.
First Man is a monumental cinematic feat and just like the bold events of July 20, 1969 it exceeds in capturing the minds and hearts of audiences everywhere. Film’s like this are made to watched on the big screen and when you do see this extraordinary piece of cinema make sure you savor every second of it because it certainly is a rush.
Image: Universal Pictures