Damien Chazelle swaps musical for moonwalking – find out more below.
Title First Man
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke
Director Damien Chazelle
Starting in 1961 up to the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, this is the story of Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his journey to becoming the first man to walk on the Moon, whilst also shining a light on his decorated career and his family life shared with his wife Sharon (Foy).
Already on to his fourth effort, Chazelle is coming off from the large success of La La Land that earned him the best reviews of his career and an Academy Award for Best Director. Chazelle’s exploration of space and the moon landings is a sudden change, considering the themes of music he has portrayed in his earlier work such as Whiplash. What is evident of the director’s trademark is the attentive detail of his protagonist and how his actor becomes the full front and centre of our attention, which is exactly what he does with Ryan Gosling’s take on Neil Armstrong.
Opening without credits, we are thrust straight into the action as Armstrong acts as a test pilot for the X-15 rocket; the scene is a triumph of sound and sight to behold. Tom Cross’ editing and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography are superb throughout, although its turbulent moments of shaky camerawork to create the atmosphere of an spacecraft exploring the vast unknown may be too much for some, becoming dizzying enough to make you hurl at the intensity.
Armstrong’s illustrious career is long and extensive, which the film depicts showing the amount of physical and mental strength that he went through to earn his place as an American icon, but that’s just the problem with the film; it’s far too long. It throws a lot at you without enough explanation or enough character development. Introducing men such as Buzz Aldrin (Stoll), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Ed White (Clarke) and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) without warning, there is no sense of introduction nor does screenwriter Josh Singer inform us why they’re there exactly.
Singer does do well with his primary subject Armstrong, focusing on the personal tragedy of the astronaut losing his daughter in the early scenes of the film as well as the conflict between him and his wife Janet, whom is understandably reluctant to see him go into space after several major mishaps and a few too many men gone. As Janet, Claire Foy swaps sovereignty for space-wife and she manages to express the strength that Janet had during a proud and influential time, despite a defeated beginning as well as personally witnessing the many tragedies NASA suffered. There is a believable sense of affection that Foy shares with her on-screen husband Ryan Gosling, which the actor wants to reciprocate but his character is conflicted with growing expectation and the grief of their late daughter that hangs over them both.
Ryan Gosling is impressive as Neil Armstrong, choosing to portray him as a modest and sensitive man determined to achieve the impossible. Gosling has given this type of performance before in roles similar to Drive and Blade Runner 2049; steely faced, anguished yet gracefully restrained and utterly complex. It’s not his best role, but it is another great moment for the actor that does work as Armstrong and he honours the astronaut, a role that is likely to earn Gosling much awards attention.
The great shame is that the film struggles to match what Gosling strives to earn, and it isn’t until the slow moments before its epic finale recreating the 1969 Moon Landing that we feel the wait has been worth it, although it is to my personal taste that I mention Justin Hurwitz’s score which is stirring, particular with the use of the Theremin within the final scene.
All in all, First Man’s major mission isn’t quite as successful as hoped, even if the individual missions recreated onscreen are exciting and incredibly crafted, but with an overlong running time and not enough character development, Chazelle’s greatest feat is in the technical elements of his earnest effort and not for the context of his characters.