REVIEW: First Man

If you believed they put Ryan Gosling on the moon; if you believed there’s nothing up Damien Chazelle’s sleeve, then nothing is cool.

Reeling from family tragedy, the engineer, Neil Armstrong, is recruited by NASA in the 1960s to take part in the space race to the moon as, unbeknownst to him, the decade long trials and tribulations gearing towards Apollo 11 would lead to one of mankind’s most historic events to date.

Damien Chazelle, in my opinion, is one of modern cinema’s most talented filmmakers to date. Coming off two starkly different, though critically acclaimed, musically orientated dramas, Whiplash and La La Land (the latter being quite possibly my favourite live action musical outside of maybe Grease), I was practically salivating over the idea of a new Chazelle project… however, when I heard the director was veering away from his roots in musical cinema for his next project, I was rather hesitant about what the director could manage to accomplish without any potential use of his jazz-like stylings. So you can imagine when I heard Chazelle’s next film would be a biopic on Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, I was extremely reserved about the project. For one, I was worried the contrasting opinions of critics and audiences concerning La La Land had forced Chazelle to course correct in his approach to films, moving away from his more original and creative workings to instead plainer adaptations. And for two, I was worried Chazelle had just resorted to becoming another director who makes nothing but ‘Oscar-bait’ flicks purely for the Academy Awards to consider when Oscar season rolls around, since a patriotic film following an American hero during the space race is exactly the kind of sh*t the Academy eats for breakfast… but, that’s not really what First Man is. Instead, Chazelle’s newest film is a remarkable tale both narratively and technically, that not only offers a healthy departure from most of Chazelle’s usual ticks but also flows with the same thematic value of his previous films, and, in all honesty, I loved what I saw.

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(Daniel McFadden/ Universal Studios, 2018)

First Man is a highly intimate and personal character study above all else. The film never panders to the usual trappings of space exploration movies as it hardly erotically shoots space in such elusive ways like a Stanley Kubrick or Aflonso Cuaron film and instead, the audience are tightly wedged in the space shuttle with the astronauts, fueled by fear of the unknown. With technical aspects that could make Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk jealous, First Man is a marvel – an achievement – for which, before I continue, I must implore now that you have to see this film on the biggest screen in the biggest cinema you can find, because the atmosphere alone in First Man is the definition of movie magic.

Calling back to the idea of First Man embodying a character study first and foremost, what I liked most about this film was how Chazelle, in the midst of crafting a large scaled visual space masterpiece, still managed to stay true to his ability in building solid character. First Man is called “First Man” for a reason; this is a film about the first bloke to step foot on that big ball of cheese in the night sky – it’s not a film about NASA – it’s not a film about the Soviets – it’s not a film about rocket science (well… not entirely). This film is a film about the man who hesitated in even having himself suggested as a hero, despite taking the largest leap in the history of humanity.

Writer, Josh Singer, who penned recent Award-winning pictures, Spotlight and The Post, single handedly took the position to provide treatment for the First Man script as an adaptation of a memoir of the same name. In this film, Neil Armstrong is a character folded into a similar position as the protagonists of Whiplash and La La Land – an ambitious and persistent individual who looks up to the stars and dares to reach for them. Armstrong like Neiman in Whiplash and Mia and Sebastian in La La Land, seeks a way to achieve what is perceived in their world as the near impossible. Therefore, First Man covers similar themes and thematic threads as Chazelle’s earlier works, fitting comfortably into the director’s filmography, almost creating a somewhat unofficial series, possibly titled the “Ambitions Trilogy”, starting with seeking success in a strict jazz school to making marks in dream shattering Los Angeles to conquering vast and infinite space – all difficult fields for each character to overcome.

Though what this film does so ingeniously is paint a picture of loneliness that reverts the legend of Neil Armstrong – the man on the moon – back to just being a way more human story. In First Man, Armstrong is haunted throughout by the death of his youngest daughter; an event having occurred towards the beginning of the film. Armstrong furthermore adopts a reserved and silent nature throughout as the narrative stretches on. He becomes a man obviously seeking to not only fulfil his duty as an astronaut and engineer but also just to find an escape. Constantly, the film cuts back to Armstrong envisioning his deceased child looping in the background of pivotal events throughout his life leading up to the launch of Apollo 11. Atop of that, Armstrong is flourished with constant death of colleagues and close friends over the course of his journey, only worsening his distant condition and, ultimately, his inability to communicate.

So it makes the utmost sense that the moon is not only used as a destination in this film, but also as a recurring motif – a symbol for Armstrong’s silent plea to escape the world. Throughout First Man we see Armstrong’s reluctance to befriend his fellow workers, his reluctance to take part in media events and even a reluctance to speak seriously with his children on the topic of his work and the perils space travel places him in. First Man is a character study predominately centered on a man thriving in an age of crushing masculinity, but suffering from unimaginable, and almost unacceptable, grief. So the concept of space and Armstrong’s overall journey to leave Earth becomes so much more involving as it dawns on the audience that this man – this hero – is, for lack of a better term, running scared and leaving his true horror and turmoil on ground level, because in space, well… nobody can hear you scream.

The moon landing sequence is therefore so impactful, not only on technical terms (for which I will get to soon) but also just as a climax to Armstrong’s emotional arc. In one moment with a genius series of shots, we see Armstrong finally release himself from the past, in servitude of a brighter future. And wow, the end shot of First Man, after Armstrong reunites with his wife behind a figurative and metaphorical barrier, the concluding moments hit hard and boy does Chazelle and Singer prove their new film to be such a heavily rich study in character, devastatingly unique in its writing and execution.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favourite actors, period, and of recent years with The Nice Guys, La La Land and Blade Runner 2049, the dude has been hitting perfect home runs nonstop. First Man marks the actor’s second outing with Chazelle, following La La Land, and instead of harnessing his more jovial, charismatic leading man act we get in said jazz musical and films like The Nice Guys, Crazy Stupid Love and The Big Short, Gosling reverts to his more stoic, quiet nature he has become so well-known for. Many believe Gosling only has two modes of acting, being either the fun, comical and charming sweetheart or the deadly silent guy (who’s possibly a psycho killer) popularized in the 2011 film, Drive, and continued in films like Only God Forgives and Blade Runner 2049. Now this may very well be true concerning Gosling’s method of acting, however it’s when a director leans into Gosling’s strong suits that Gosling’s performance can shine incredibly well, and the role of this lonely, reverted astronaut fits the bill perfectly. Similar to his past films, Gosling restrains himself from an influx of dialogue and is able to instead do a lot in his face, movements, ticks, shudders and stares. Gosling is incredible at visual performance and with his role of Armstrong, this may be one of the actor’s best performances yet.

Meanwhile, leading lady, Claire Foy, transcending just the ‘astronaut’s wife’ role, even comes to completely besting Gosling at his own game. Playing silent and subtle followed with moments of raw explosions, build an incredible performance for Foy in a year with Unsane and the upcoming The Girl in the Spider’s Web, for which the actress has really been making an impression on the 2018 big screen indeed.

As for the way First Man is shot, the cinematography appears almost Terrence Malick like and just, to put it plainly, so impossibly otherworldly in its beauty. First Man may not be musically orientated like Chazelle’s previous work, but there is an element of lyrical genius to the visuals that allows the film to flow in similar ways. The camera is, for the majority of the time, handheld and therefore really places the audience almost in the shoes of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. The cinematography can get so intimate to the point it becomes claustrophobic at times as, to quote David Bowie, you literally feel like you’re drifting in a “tin can”. And with flawless sound design and outstanding editing, the moments in said rocket and space vessels feel real and gritty and daunting. You hear the clattering of the ship, the ricketing, the groaning and the shuddering, all as if the mission could go wrong at any moment – and in this film it does go wrong, multiple times. However the horror and terror employed by the technical aspects soon become all worth it, as, alongside the characters, the images of space we get are unreal and gorgeous – viewed through the lens of real people as a real space experience. The beauty of space is never vast or large in scope – it’s framed by small spaceship windows and uneasy drifting on the cusp of Earth’s atmosphere. First Man achieves a remarkable human experience that is cinematic but also intimate in how it allows its visuals to be explored.

Despite the overall tone of this film feeling cold and calculated and in line with the main man Armstrong himself, there still appears a magical enchantment cast over First Man. Maybe it’s the constant looming of the moon in the background or centre of shots, or maybe it’s the film’s flawless and dreamy score (that I am currently listening to now as I write this review, because, damn it’s good), but First Man never completely loses the magical charm of Chazelle’s filmography and overarching style.

The visual effects are exceptional in this film, as the in-camera practical effects are just breathtaking to observe. The moon landing sequence in particular is just astounding, like a truly unforgettable moment in cinema through not only character and writing but also through impeccable technical achievement… even though I was waiting for the camera to pan out to reveal Stanley Kubrick and a production crew filming it all in Hollywood back lot. And also, real quickly, to address some controversy; I know people are upset with how this film does depict the moment Neil Armstrong plants the American flag in the moon’s surface, but… seriously, are you kidding me? First off, Chazelle uses First Man to make a powerful stance in really highlight the efforts of NASA throughout this movie. First Man never makes itself out as being embarrassed to call itself an American achievement and instead is quite the opposite; First Man is patriotic in a sense, even painting the American astronauts as soldier-like, in some regards, risking their lives for scientific development as heroes of the United States. So all you Americans, don’t stress… you guys come off very well in this film – flag or no flag. What First Man does on a wider scale however is highlight importantly how much an achievement the moon landing was for not just America but the world in general. The remarkable accomplishment of getting a man to walk on the moon may have been powered by American genius, but it’s the overall triumph of mankind that something considered impossible became possible.

Nevertheless, what it all boils down to in the long run is the one man, and how that one man for a brief period of time encompassed the whole of humanity. First Man is both a personal tale and a universal tale. All of us, down here on this big blue world, all feel guilt and loneliness and sadness and, you know what, I reckon if anyone had the option to do so, they too would want to piss off to the moon to clear their mind. Yet, it’s what we go through as people, from our ambitions to failings that give us life. When Armstrong stepped onto the moon and pronounced: “one small step for man – one giant leap for mankind”, he was, for a moment, both the man and the whole of mankind – he was himself and he was the world. So appropriate it is, that a film about Armstrong and the moon landing should both be a heavily personal one and an even more vastly universal one.

Houston, mission accomplished.

First Man is, in fact… LOST ART

 

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