Review – ‘First Man’ is a sophisticated masterpiece about a human triumph

Luke Stevenson is one of the hosts of The Popcorn Muncher Podcast. He is only serious about Bee Movie.

Poster for 2018 historical drama First Man

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 12th October 2018
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas
Synopsis: The story of Neil Armstrong and his fellow NASA astronauts during the Space Race, leading up to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission that put Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

 

 

It is a challenge for any filmmaker to take a story that everyone in the world knows and make it interesting. Fortunately, in Damien Chazelle’s hands, everything he touches turns into effortless magic. His follow-up to Oscar-winners Whiplash and La La Land is another mesmerising powerhouse, equally as likely to grab you and hold you to the seat as the music-infused masterpieces that it follows.

This is a different beast to Chazelle’s previous efforts. Audiences may have become used to long, wide-angle takes in La La Land, but here Chazelle is obsessed with his subject, spending most of the time in Ryan Gosling’s face, only bringing the camera further away to slow the pace down and achieve the second almost impossible task. How do you take a seemingly functional, almost boring, main character and make him an interesting movie protagonist?

Neil Armstrong is a name billions of people recognise, but he is a character that few truly know and, according to this biopic, it might be that even less than that can truly testify to knowing him in any depth. First Man chronicles Armstrong’s journey through the Gemini programme and in to the Apollo run of flights, focusing on several key space missions as set pieces to build the story around.

Armstrong keeps his feelings buried beneath the surface – a somewhat ironic trait for someone whose most famous feat was to walk on top of one. But what Chazelle and scriptwriter Josh Singer do to scrape at that exterior is ask a single question – what drives this man? – and posit a few possible answers. Is he running away from grief? Obsessing over something he could achieve after the treatments for his daughter ultimately failed? Or is it camaraderie, and the idea of accomplishing something hundreds of people gave up their time, and in many cases lives, to achieve?

Each of these avenues is explored, but the film doesn’t settle on any one answer. It may be frustrating for some viewers, as Armstong comes across at times as little more than a workmanlike professional who finds himself on the moon by simply being the most functional man for the job. However, if you buy in to Gosling’s mesmerising central performance, you feel every blow he is dealt with more intensity than it appears that Armstrong himself does.

While ably supported by a barely-keeping-it-together Claire Foy as his wife, Janet, this is Gosling’s show, and it appears that, with their second collaboration, Chazelle has found the best part of Gosling’s considerable powers – his ability to emote while doing very little. There isn’t a big ‘Oscar scene’, and it may be deemed unfair to just play the full two-hour movie in his award season clip, but this is a masterclass in understatement and bringing bubbling depth to a character who, in the wrong hands, could be boring.

This dedicated character study does not go without spectacle. Three flights are focused on – an opening one before Armstrong joins the mission to the moon, the Gemini 8 flight which tested NASA’s ability to dock in space, and the Apollo 11 mission itself. Again, we are far away from the long takes that stood out in La La Land. Here, Chazelle deals almost exclusively in quick cuts and close-ups, as if he is challenging Gravity’s talent for drama in space, and the effect on a big screen is quite something. You are as trapped in the seat as Armstong is, waiting for the film to relent – it never does. For those moments, you forget that Armstrong ultimately made it and become obsessed with the horrifying reality of space travel, and of the humans at the centre of it.

Ryan Gosling stars as astronaut Neil Armstrong in biopic First Man
Ryan Gosling stars as astronaut Neil Armstrong in biopic First Man

Only when Armstong makes it to the moon does Chazelle take a breath and deliver some breathtakingly cinematic shots of the moon’s surface. It’s the long exhalation at the end of a journey, but also a period of time to question what this all means to Armstrong. Again, Chazelle is only willing to ask the question, but you find yourself hungrily trying to fill in the gaps. In each of these epic scenes, there is a deep-rooted moment of humanity which makes you as a viewer appreciate the scale of the task achieved when man first walked on the moon.

That is the true miracle of First Man. It is a technical marvel, but also so much more than that. It’s a steadfastly human story that asks questions and puts you in places to make you care about a character that wouldn’t be interesting enough to write in a fiction story, and creates threat and suspense around a journey for which everyone knows the destination. It is a magnificent feat that combines spectacle with heart and knowledge with understanding. First Man is a masterpiece.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

After scooping awards and acclaim with his two previous movies, Damien Chazelle has delivered another sophisticated, adult drama with First Man. Ryan Gosling is terrific with an understated, expressive performance as Neil Armstrong, while Chazelle’s patient filmmaking rises to the surface, culminating with the breathtaking spectacle of the moment in which Armstrong took his fateful step and uttered one of the most iconic sentences in human history.

Chazelle might be on more restrained stylistic form with this one, but the splendour of his work is present and correct.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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