ON IN CINEMAS
First Man (2018) dir: Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"
This biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on Earth’s moon, features Ryan Gosling in the central role. It starts out by showing him undergoing a dangerous test flight which breaks through the Earth’s atmosphere. After it is pronounced a success, Armstrong is drafted into a program designed to beat the U.S.S.R.’s achievements in The Great Space Race: a manned flight to the moon.
The film follows his progress towards that fateful 1969 “Giant leap for mankind” as he undergoes gruelling rounds of training and tests while navigating family life on the N.A.S.A. base with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and two sons. However, it soon becomes clear from the increasing number of his colleagues who don’t survive these dry run exercises that there’s a considerable inherent danger involved. While the stoic and emotionally-closed Armstrong deals with these challenges in his own quiet way, Janet becomes increasingly fraught. Meanwhile, a media and political circus encroaches them all as they move inexorably towards their ultimate goal: the Apollo 11 flight.
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More Oscar controversy for Chazelle?
Damien Chazelle’s previous film, La La Land, won a lot of 2017 awards season buzz as well as a subsequent backlash from critics who were wondering if it really deserved its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. First Man looks like it may well repeat the same pattern, albeit likely to a less pronounced extent. While reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive, Richard Brody of The New Yorker has accused it of being right-wing propaganda whilst a handful of others have felt that it fails to fully tackle the story’s emotional quandaries.
The cinematic draw of First Man is evident right from the mixture of awe and white-knuckle terror imbued by the opening sequence depicting a test flight. After plenty of shaky-cam and an exhilarating pass through cloud layers, the spacecraft enters a place of stasis, silence and pitch-darkness… before Planet Earth looms into view outside the window and the soundtrack buzzes afresh. When the film is off the ground, it’s a transcendent experience of near-flawlessly realistic visual and sound design combined with moments of pure edge-of-the-seat suspense.
The film also deserves to be applauded for not soft-pedalling on the fact that, when it comes down to it, the astronauts were (more or less) willingly expendable human guinea pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of executing a grand vision. While we’re reminded throughout of the danger which they inevitably faced while carrying out their politically-important work, the most shocking moment comes when the interior of a landing capsule incinerates inside, with a plume of flame lapping mere inches from the faces of its two unfortunate would-be pilots. This ends in an explosion seen from the outside of its thick metal hulk - resulting in a subdued boom and a mere bump in the entry hatch. It’s the most effective type of chill: the restrained kind.
Lacking in the human dimension
However, when the film concentrates on the human dramatic aspects, it finds wanting. Once again, Chazelle displays his acumen for making these scenes pleasing in an audio-visual sense. His use of a dusky, hazy, autumnal visual palette effectively sees through the eyes of someone for whom, at any given time, these images could his last sights. Unfortunately, the whole all comes across as being rather distant because the characters lack colour or depth. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as yet another of his low-key, emotionally-contained types. Okay, so he’s in his element playing this kind of part but he doesn’t add anything new to the table this time around. While Claire Foy is much more expressive as Janet Armstrong, her role amounts to nothing more than a one-note fretting spouse. Of course, American women’s roles within the family unit were usually far more constrained than what we would see today. Even so, we hardly get any sense of her being defined as a human being outside of being a traditional homemaker. The other roles here are even more thinly-sketched.
I’m not saying that First Man is a bad film by any means; it’s a solidly respectable one with several outstanding moments of pure cinema. However, one can’t help but compare it with The Right Stuff (1983), an account of America’s earliest astronauts which, give or take, functions as its chronological prequel. While that film had its technically impressive and transcendentally beautiful depictions of test and space flights, it also managed to feature an array of lively, distinctively-defined real-life personae played by a cast of then-upcoming actors, as well as a sly dash of welcome satirical humour. First Man, on the other hand, fails to find the same human pulse.
It’s more of a small step for filmmaking than the giant leap that it should have been.
Runtime: 141 mins
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Script: Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton