Updated: Jan 15
Ryan Gosling has a predilection for playing rather aloof, emotionally distant characters, such as the Neil Armstrong we travel with in Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). He is a figure who is detached and single-minded, conducting discussions with his children as if they are press conferences. As the film is told from Armstrong’s perspective, it ends up being a rather cold and dispassionate experience.
The film certainly owes a debt to previous space-based dramas, acting as a prequel of sorts to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995). It examines the tragedies and the triumphs of Project Gemini and the Apollo space program, highlighting the mortality and bravery of the astronauts, and the fallibility of those on the ground. The human drama is reinforced by the hand-held filming techniques present throughout the film. Chazelle’s camera is always moving which, although distracting at times, lends a distinct documentary feel to proceedings. The film very much gives the impression that Armstrong is a man just doing his job, unwavering and uncompromising in his commitment to winning the Space Race and beating the Soviets to the Moon. But more than that, it is a very self-reflective examination of a man motivated by family tragedy; a ‘reluctant American hero’ as his family have since described him. A significant highlight of the film is Claire Foy in a superbly naturalistic performance as Jean Armstrong. She is a woman who just wants a normal life, berating the men in charge for being a “bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood”. She has to hold her family together in her husband’s absence, much like the nuts, bolts and rivets threaten to shake apart the combustible canister that rockets Armstrong away from his grief.
Another key component of First Man is the score which comes from Chazelle’s frequent collaborator, composer Justin Hurwitz. It is a natural progression from his work on La La Land (2016), revisiting that film’s satisfying themes and textures. An extended docking sequence is accompanied by a beautifully serene waltz, playfully evoking the ‘Blue Danube’ sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The lunar module lands on the moon’s surface to the strains of a significantly John Barry-esque string motif with dramatic interjections from the brass section, revisited as an ethereal theremin melody once the astronauts have returned to Earth. If the Bond producers are looking for fresh blood on composer duties when 'Bond 25' (eventually) appears, they could do a lot worse than giving Hurwitz a ring. As Armstrong descends the steps of the lunar module for the first time, we hear nothing but his breathing. We are in his space suit with him. There are long, lingering periods of silence, superbly communicating the wonder and isolation of an extraordinary achievement in human endeavour. These moments are where the film is at its most distinctive and effective.
First Man feels like it should leave more of a lasting impression. The dialogue is extremely well-written, the characterisation believable, and the performances convincing. But once the astronauts return home, the film suffers from the ‘what do we do now?’ problem; a trap that the likes of Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) fell into but Ridley Scott’s exuberant The Martian (2015) managed to circumvent. A cursory glance at Neil Armstrong’s story would reveal that he kept a low profile for much of the remainder of his life. First Man only hints at the impact his pioneering travels had, alongside Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas), the only two other people in the world who shared that common experience.
| To be continued... |