Jacob Richardson | 29/09/2018
A piece of filmmaking worthy of man’s greatest achievement. A triumph.
Following Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), and his family, as he progresses from test pilot and engineer, through the death of his young daughter, to the commander of Apollo 11. First Man investigates not only the circumstances around the most famous human achievement of all time, but also what made the first man who walked on the moon tick.
Damien Chazelle is fast becoming one of the most impressive directors of all time. Whiplash was incredibly poignant, and he followed it up with what almost became best picture winner last year at the Oscars. Here, he eschews his regular musical focus for a historical biopic, but he brings his same vivacity for the screen and indelible sense of storytelling.
Chazelle delivers First Man in intense, immersive close-ups of key characters and grainy shots that mimic the period. He contrasts these with some stunning geography, successfully depicting the scale and scope of Cape Canaveral and the Lunar surface. It’s an intense, quiet, gripping and rousing piece of filmmaking, that never succumbs to jingoistic patriotism.
It’s anchored by Gosling’s performance as Armstrong. Gosling is quiet, brooding, conveying an intense intelligence coupled with a stubborn belief in the space race and a sometimes misplaced bravery. He gives Armstrong a twinkle that provides insight into the attraction his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), felt. He doesn’t shy away from the repellant aspects of Armstrong either; his sulleness, his inability to deal with emotion in a way that benefits his family immediately prior to his departure. He also subtlety infuses his grief over the loss of his daughter into every action he makes.
It’s a masterclass in performance that is mirrored in much of the supporting cast. Foy, despite limited screen time, delivers a convincing, charismatic portayal of the woman behind the man. Whether she is arguing with her oldest son, who has stolen the radio transmitter broadcasting the capsule commentary as Neil attempts the first docking procedure in orbit, calmly helping a widowed friend, or quietly questioning Neil’s colleagues about whether he talks about their deceased daughter, Foy crafts such an aura of calm confidence and quiet fear.
Jason Clarke is great as Edward White, as is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. But it’s really Gosling and Foy’s picture in the performance space.
Much of First Man transcends performance though, and falls instead on three key creatives. The first is, of course, Chazelle, who as director crafts a picture that is incredibly well paced. He generates a consistent buzz of tension, a slow burn of anticipation that builds up to that incredible moment that the world knows so well. He wouldn’t be able to do so without the other two key creatives though. As cinematographer, Linus Sandgren delivers a truly stunning picture. He keeps a significant number of shots incredibly close to the performers, focusing on little details; a ring around a finger, the grainy skin of a forehead pressed against another, the tremble as two hands touch. They contrast perfectly against the more significant set pieces, against flames leaping into the sky with an unattainable seeming moon behind, or a grey, barren landscape against the blackness of space.
Justin Hurwitz, the composer, also helps craft this intimate yet awe inspiring aura, with a score that is much more modern cinematic than some of his previous collaborations with this director. It builds to an impressive crescendo as Neil and Buzz try and touch down on the moon; a crescendo that mimics the pace of the film. It gives those first steps on the dusty gravel surface the poignancy and gravity that they deserve, and makes you feel like you know how a young child, watching that happen in real time on a TV back in the 60’s must have felt. It’s truly special.
Damien Chazelle delivers a thought-provoking, respectful and inspiring take on man’s greatest achievement. This is much watch filmmaking.