First Man (2018) Film Review By Gareth Rhodes

First Man (2018) Directed By Damien Chazelle. With Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.

Having enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s previous two films, Whiplash and La La Land, I looked forward to seeing what the exciting young director might do when tackling humankind’s greatest “where were you” moment to date…setting foot on the surface of the moon. As it turns out, First Man is more of a study on grief and loneliness than a procedural charting of the Apollo 11 mission that led the USA to plant its stars and stripes into the moon dust to seemingly claim eternal bragging rights over the rest of the world…Soviet Union at that particular time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, presenting a man haunted by the loss of his young daughter while struggling to attend to his young family as he throws himself headfirst into a death-defying reach for the stars. Claire Foy plays his loyal wife, Janet, who carries the triple burden of grief for her daughter, nurturing their other children and a painful anxiety for the safety of her husband. Gosling and Foy are excellent in their restraint. Shot up close and personal, Foy’s beautiful eyes are pools of love, pain and frustration as she suffers on the sidelines while Gosling is the stoic loner, shedding any remnants of leading man charisma to portray Armstrong as a methodical man of heroic inner strength, a strength that the movie seems to suggest is summoned by an emotional detachment following the loss of his child.

Combined with the personal intimacy achieved through performance, writing and photography, the use of sound is an almost overwhelming force in First Man. What Chazelle achieves in bounds is capturing the perilous nature of space exploration. A lot of that danger is realised through sound as we hear the ferociously violent forces of nature attempting to rip apart the tiny capsule protecting the astronauts. As their instruments spell danger with red-flashing warning lights and low fuel indicators, turbulence and space rolls couple with the hellish squeal of buckling metal pushed to the absolute brink of its resistance. Chazelle’s achievement here is not to be understated. That is to say we all know the mission was a success (sorry-not-sorry if that’s a spoiler) yet still the tension is borderline unbearable.

The wider competition of the space race is alluded to but not focused on. The global and political conditions seem to be mere satellites around Armstrong’s remarkable world. In press conferences he is to-the- point and without need for self-promotion. Counter that Buzz Aldrin, a more outspoken man, perhaps more in touch with who he is. By casting Corey Stoll, an actor with a history of playing bald-headed complex villains, the film is guilty of singling Aldrin out as a bit of a dick, which in itself could be seen as a dick move given that Aldrin is little more than a cameo act over the course of the film.

Though First Man would play neatly either side of an Apollo 13 double-bill, it is most definitely not the same triumphant force of mainstream movie-making. Though it has fine examples of modern film techniques (spot the CGI?), it is a somber piece with a muted emphasis on looking to the equally endless depths of inner space.

4/5

About garethrhodes

Full-time lover of all things creative.
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