First Man

Posted: October 16, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.

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He looks like a nice guy…

In 1961 test pilot Neil Armstrong (Gosling) is flying the X-15 rocket plane, but after near disaster he’s grounded. It’s another blow on top of the trauma he and his wife Janet (Foy) are already struggling with because their daughter, Karen has a brain tumour.

In the aftermath of tragedy Armstrong applies for NASA’s Project Gemini, a precursor to the Apollo programme. Armstrong and his family move out to Houston where they quickly become friends with his fellow astronauts and their families.

As training progresses Armstrong is chosen to fly on Gemini 8, but every man sees Gemini as only a stepping stone, every one of them wants to go to the moon and Armstrong is no exception, but the earliest era of the space race is a dangerous time and for all their scientists and engineers, NASA are pushing the envelope in terms of what is possible. As accidents and tragedy befall the group, and Armstrong withdraws further and further into himself, Janet has to accept the very real possibility that her husband might fly to the moon, it isn’t certain that he’ll come back.

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It was a bad time to need a pee!

After the delight of La La Land it’s interesting to note that Damien Chazelle’s follow up is a very different kind of film, and even though he’s retained the services of Gosling, the locked down astronaut Armstrong is a very different character to laid back jazz aficionado Sebastian.

It’s been three days since I saw First Man, and it’s fair to say that it’s still haunting me. Chazelle has managed a rare feat, a film that, on the surface, is an epic tale of the race to the moon, but which underneath is an incredibly intimate character portrayal of one man’s struggle with grief and solitude.

For all that he was seen as an all-American hero, the reality of Neil Armstrong was something more nuanced. Here was a man who didn’t like being the centre of attention, who was incredibly introverted and who struggled to express his grief, bottling it up and retreating further and further into his work, and Gosling is just amazing. He’s awkward and insular, a man unable to tap into his emotions—in one scene he explains to his children that he might not make it back from the moon, but talks to them like he’s chairing a meeting. In another scene he bluntly explains to one of his friends, who asks if he wants to talk, that the reason he suddenly left a funeral was because he wanted to be alone.

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Suddenly Claire realised she wasn’t in Charlies’ Angels 3 after all!

It’s Foy as Janet who is our way into his life, and she continues to impress as an actress. In many ways it’s a thankless role, and yet an essential one to ground the drama, and often it’s Foy who’s left to express our exasperation, whether it’s decrying NASA as a club for schoolboys building toys out of balsa wood, or insisting that Armstrong talk to his children before he heads off to what could be his final mission. If there’s a misstep in the film it’s that she disappears during the Apollo 11 mission, I can understand why Chazelle did this, but her absence is notable.

The supporting cast is solid, in particular Jason Clarke is good as fellow astronaut Ed White, and Corey Stoll seems to be having a blast as Buzz Aldrin, who’s portrayed as something of a loudmouth, and is the perfect counterpoint to the buttoned-up Armstrong.

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Kept expecting Blofeld’s rocket to sneak up behind it!

The true wonder of this film is in Chazelle’s direction and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography however, and in fact the whole crew deserve credit for putting something so stupendous on the screen. The effects are amazing, and spaceflight in the 1960s in shown in all its cobbled together glory. The Gemini and Apollo space craft may look ultra-modern from a distance, but they’re not the sleek craft of science fiction, they’re metal and they’re clunky, bolted and riveted together like handstitched jeans, and when one technician asks if anyone has a swiss army knife just before take-off so he can fix something this makes perfect sense. Chazelle doe an amazing job of putting us in the capsule with Armstrong, and it isn’t glorious or heroic. It’s cramped and noisy, and when they launch the craft rattles so hard that it feels like it’s going to shake apart, and it’s bought brutally home to us that these men are strapped into tiny metal coffins that are jammed onto the top of rockets full of highly flammable liquid. Spaceflight is brutal, and for some of the astronauts it may be fatal.

Still, seeing the Gemini capsule in space, or the lunar lander approaching the moon, there’s a real sense of awe unlike anything I’ve seen before, and in particular the lunar scenes are just incredible.

But this is a film about claustrophobia, and Chazelle uses hand held cameras to film his stars in close-up to empathise this. It’s also film about solitude, and it’s clear even before he travels hundreds of thousands of kilometres to the moon that Armstrong is detached from the rest of the human race, shut off behind a façade to hide his grief.

There’s a moment, on the moon, that revolves around nothing more than Armstrong lifting his visor and then lowering it again, yet it’s an incredibly evocative moment that brings the whole story together, even before we get to a final scene that reinforces everything we’ve come to realise about Armstrong.

It maybe could have done more to show the work of those women and persons of colour at NASA who played their part, but this may have detracted from the focal point of Armstrong, and it is a long film. It’s also somewhat slow at first, but rewards your patience. An incredible film that’s been put together with the meticulous care of a Saturn V rocket, and I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t win big at the Oscars (but then again, I thought Dunkirk would so what do I know!)

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Fly me to the moon…

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