First Man chronicles the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) during the 1960s in which he began his journey to the moon. This is the fourth feature from Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land), a talented young filmmaker who is rapidly establishing a brilliant and eclectic body of work. Gosling provides a nuanced performance as the reserved and stoic astronaut. Armstrong is not an emotionally expressive man and we only glimpse brief moments of his vulnerability. However, the film is an intimate insight into the man beneath the helmet and the personal and professional heartache and loss he and his family endured. Learning of NASA’s numerous and sometimes fatal failures serves to demystify the often romanticised tale; Armstrong’s work and subsequent obsession becomes a coping mechanism for the trauma that haunts him and is the fuel that drives him towards his ultimate goal. First Man is not solely focused on that famous first small step but rather the culmination of steps that came before; this is a story of the journey more than the destination.
Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong was perhaps in danger of lacking depth as simply the hero’s wife, yet by being the strong voice of reason within the film, she does not succumb to this archetype. She supports Neil in his pursuit to go to the moon but is a constant reminder for him to (quite literally) come back down to Earth. In one particularly poignant scene, Janet confronts Neil, telling him that he must be the one to sit his sons down and admit that he may not be returning home. She is the strength that holds the family together as Neil drifts further and further away.
The film is an inherently American story but is not weighed down by overly patriotic propaganda. Chazelle was critiqued for omitting the planting of the American flag, but it is refreshing to see a more humanistic rather than nationalistic portrayal. After all this was a giant leap for mankind. There are touches of cold war themes and the space race against the Soviets but Neil’s motivations for reaching the moon are always grounded in an instinctive wonder and infinite desire to discover the unknown.
If the climatic voyage to the moon is somewhat familiar it does not make it any less exhilarating. Whilst we may take for granted that the outcome of the mission was a forgone conclusion, the film is clear in showing that success was anything but assured. Chazelle crafts an incredibly immersive experience; the violent reverberations of flight create a sense of tangible danger despite the knowledge of Neil’s success residing in the back of our minds. The sequence of landing on the moon is a transcendent spectacle. Chazelle may be known for the musicality of his past two features but First Man triumphs in the ethereal silences of space. However, the film’s lasting impact is in the invasive close ups of family life. You will come for the moon but leave fascinated with the inner layers of a man who was not an obvious or willing hero but one who was driven by ineffable grief and determination. No doubt a deserved buzz will surround First Man come awards season.
Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures