In First Man, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) tells the story of the historical moon landing of July 1969, in a film which reads like a love letter to the men and women who dedicated their lives to conquering space in the second half of the 20th century. Adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, First Man sees Chazelle reunited with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in an exquisite production, which despite being a million miles away from the director’s previous features, still manages to be just as spectacular and just as engaging.
Focusing the story mostly on Neil Armstrong’s experiences and his rise from brilliant test-pilot to reluctant American hero, First Man tells a heartwarming story of courage and determination in the face of doubt and political unrest of the early to late 60s.
Packed tightly into a rattling aircraft no bigger than a beer barrel, we first meet Neil Armstrong (Gosling) on one of his first excursions outside of earth’s atmosphere. Seized by the beauty of the spectacle before him, Armstrong does his best to ignore the shaking and rattling of a malfunctioning machine by concentrating on the job at hand with a cool head and an almost abnormal stillness. This first sequence plays a huge role in determining what kind of man stands before us. Hit by familial tragedy shortly after that, Armstrong remains an enigma to most by choosing to internalise every single doubt and heartbreaking event from that first scene right up to the film’s spectacular denouement, which culminates with the moon landing itself, in a sequence which is so tense that you’ll find yourself forgetting to breathe.
Managing to successfully avoid the usual pitfalls that go hand in hand with the retelling of recent historical events, Chazelle goes above and beyond what is expected of him to offer a breathtakingly immersive experience which hits all the right notes both thematically as well as visually. And while similar productions in the past seemed more concerned with superfluous and rather reductive narratives which focused mostly on the populist fervour of American pride, First Man is far more interested in conducting an honest character study of one man’s quiet determination to go further than any other human being has ever been before.
By telling the story of the Space Race between NASA and the Russian space agency from the standpoint of those who put their lives in danger every time they climbed into those shaky spacecrafts, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer are able to add a huge dose of poetry to their story without ever falling into the overly melodramatic. All of which is held together brilliantly by Linus Sandgren’s breathtaking cinematography which perfectly emulates the cinematic aesthetic of the era, adding a great deal of nostalgia to the proceedings.
Ryan Gosling gives a truly outstanding performance as Neil Armstrong whom he offers as a self-effacing character whose unflinching determination in the face of tragedy and danger played a huge role on the man he was to become. Handling almost every single failure with great levelheadedness, Gosling’s Armstrong may be a man of few words, but when he speaks people have no other option but to listen. In direct contrast, Buzz Aldrin is offered as an overly talkative, braggy and hugely incentive character, characteristics which are brilliantly translated onto the screen by the fantastic Corey Stoll. For her part, Claire Foy puts in a truly incredible turn as Neil’s wife Janet Armstrong, a woman whose life has been marred by the loss of a child and the constant fear of losing her husband too.
On the whole, what makes First Man into so much more than a film about Space exploration is its refusal to conform to nationalistic ideas, preferring to instead bring a more universal story to its audiences. Elevated by yet another beautifully executed score courtesy of Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz (La La Land, Whiplash), the film is able to reconcile audiences with the love of spectacle from the get go by offering a hauntingly melancholic leitmotif which will having you humming its tune long after you’ve exited the cinema.