In a film that could be seen as a spiritual successor to his debut feature Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle tells another story of human perseverance and sky-high goals in First Man. Ryan Gosling stars as do-you-even-know-what-he-really-looks like famous astronaut Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the moon.
The obvious approach to a film like this might have been to tell a story detailing the public hype and anticipation, and the astronauts’ preparation over the weeks/months before the launch – but First Man differs in a couple of ways.
Firstly, it starts in 1961 – 8 years before the successful mission – when Neil isn’t even an astronaut yet. He is a NASA test pilot who gets grounded after a midair mishap, who might be too distracted by personal tragedy to reach the necessary (metaphorical) heights at work. So he shoots even (literally) higher, by applying to work on the moon-landing missions.
Secondly, First Man tells a pretty closed-off, subjective story: focusing largely on Neil’s personal experience – with the NASA program and at home. He is a quiet man – haunted by the death of his young daughter. Even the impressive rocket launch and test flight sequences are very subjective – instead of a focus on the grand visuals, the film puts you in the pilot’s seat, for the most part. You’ll experience the terrible shaking, limited view, and anxiety with the characters – an equally exciting and uncomfortable experience. The film also does a brilliant job of juxtaposing astronaut training, media attention and political protests, and Armstrong’s family life. Even though they didn’t intercut the sequences, you can’t help but draw parallels between the press conferences, and Neil’s interrogation by his children on the night before his final departure.
While Damien Chazelle’s previous films Whiplash and La La Land broke bold ground, First Man isn’t quite as innovative as those films were – except for the stellar, breathtaking moon landing sequence (shot on IMAX, which definitely helps with the awe). It’s an impressive film about personal growth in the shadow of atmosphere-breaching, headline-making technological leaps, with the subjective experience being a particularly memorable part of it. Here and there the shaky, handheld cameras bothered me (and no, not in the rocketship cockpits, but rather in calm, walking-down-the-street dialogue scenes), but it’s a small enough gripe that quickly gets overshadowed by the moon sequence.
First Man is an impressive story about very impressive events. But kept surprisingly small and personal. Ryan Gosling’s stoic performance is as great as ever, and Damien Chazelle made some great choices in his approach to the material. And even though it didn’t impress me quite as much as Whiplash or La La Land, I wouldn’t be surprised if this finally lands Damien Chazelle a well-deserved Best Picture Oscar.
First Man is directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling. It is in local cinemas from 26 October 2018.