Review: First Man

The Lonely Spaceman

It is surprising that almost 50 years on from the infamous 1969 moon landing, few have tried to display the iconic events in a feature film. Damien Chazelle has changed that with his third directorial outing, First Man, a biopic which traces the experiences of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. For Chazelle, First Man represents a considerable shift from his previous body of work which focused more upon musicianship. However, like Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle’s new film is fundamentally about an individual’s desire to achieve something truly great.

The film opens with the camera thrust inside a shuttle. It is dark, disorienting and shaky cam that brilliantly captures the isolation of the pilot on board, soon shown to be Armstrong, who is played predictably well by Ryan Gosling. Brilliant close ups of Gosling’s eyes expose the reflection of the surface of the earth, making the awe of interplanetary travel already a believably, achievable marvel.

Chazelle and Gosling have already proved to be a winning director-actor combo since La La Land and they do not disappoint here. Armstrong comes across as a meek yet determined figure who everyone respects but few seem fully intimate with. The emotional grief caused by the death of his daughter Karen early on scars Neil deeply and is only made worse by the subsequent deaths of his fellow astronauts in NASA missions.

In many ways, Gosling portrays Armstrong as a detached figure who not only embarks on his space mission on behalf of those he has lost, but also to escape his perpetual grief. While the film traces the missions undertaken before the launch of Apollo 11, it also traces the multiple funerals that Neil attends simultaneously, showing the inextricable link between technological progression and human loss. This is intriguingly presented but does cause the middle of the film to slow a little.

However, First Man remains a beautiful spectacle throughout, as the blue pastel colours of the earth perfectly contrast the darkness inside the space shuttle. Close ups of Armstrong during the Gemini launch give an intimate insight into the claustrophobic cabin which the astronauts were confined to in near darkness. Chazelle also interestingly chooses to keep the camera inside the shuttle for the entire launch, using shaky cam to disorientate the viewer in an attempt to replicate the feeling of a take-off. He then cuts to a wide shot of the spacecraft floating through space to orchestral music which is a clear reference to Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yet for all its cinematic mastery, First Man isn’t perfect. For a film so much about Armstrong, we are shown little of his own perspective. It is easy to appreciate the pain he had to endure but we are never really given an insight into Neil’s thoughts as he remains a quietly contemplative character. His feelings are implied but, because Neil speaks so little of his missions and his grief, it is difficult to truly connect with the character.

Another interestingly overlooked element is the relationship between Neil and Buzz Aldrin. Even if, as the film seems to imply, Neil and Buzz didn’t get along that well, their relationship deserved to be exposed to a greater degree. More focus is given to Elliot and Gus, Neil’s close friends who were part of the space programme. This works for the start of the film but during the moon landing when Buzz and Neil are alone together, you really don’t know the dynamic of their relationship.

Yet, the peak of the film is obviously the moon landing which is shot brilliantly and looks as though it was filmed on location. Neil remains meek as he steps onto the moon for the first time and utters the eponymous words which have become engrained in popular culture. Chazelle however, chooses to centre the moon landing around a heart-breaking moment which affirms how First Man is fundamentally a film about the journey of Neil Armstrong.

First Man is by no means Damien Chazelle’s best film, but, aged just 33, it serves as another great addition to his already impressive résumé as Chazelle himself takes one small step to cinematic greatness.

Stefan Frost

First Man is out in cinemas now.


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