DIR: Damien Chazelle • WRI: Josh Singer • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Jay Cassidy • DES: Karen Murphy • PRO: Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner • MUS: Justin Hurwitz • CAST: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Truth be told, LA LA Land never did it for me. Sing Street was a better musical. In fact, there’s a chant in the middle of this film that is catchier than anything in Chazelle’s preceding musical.
However, as a filmmaker, he is undoubtedly testing himself and here we get to see if he has the right stuff to tackle the NASA program to get a man on the moon. The answer comes back firmly in the affirmative. This handsome, thoughtful film is no jingoistic or romanticised account. Indeed, the film does its utmost to strip any veneer of glamour from the process.
To that end; earth-shattering mission decisions are related in anonymous bathrooms. Major selections for seats on a shuttle result in the briefest of smiles rather than high fives. Stoic resolve seems to be the strongest response to both success and failure. The film is so reserved, so ready to eschew the big moment that I wondered would it end before the most famous quote of all.
Opening with a nerve-jangling sequence as a high altitude test of Armstrong’s threatens to maroon him in space, First Man is at its best in stressing the stress these astronauts were under and indeed the stress these almost primitive ships endured. At certain points, as capsules rattle, vibrate and tumble; the thinness of the line between life and death is astoundingly clear. The biggest leap in space travel seems to have been the leap of faith by these men to climb inside these claustrophobic tin machines in the first places.
Yet the film’s central thesis may just be that men can’t be machines. In its depiction of Neil Armstrong, the film zeroes in on the loss of a child early in his marriage as a key driving force. Indeed, the shadow of death hangs over the entire picture like a fickle finger. In the lead role, Ryan Gosling dials back his innate charisma to heighten his intensity. Humour isn’t entirely absent but most of it here is close to professional gallows humour, considering the lives lost in the pursuit of what seemed an often impossible goal. It qualifies as brave to keep things this grounded when dealing with the loftiest ambitions mankind has ever had.
In an era and arena dominated by male presences, Chazelle and writer Josh Singer seem at pains to have a strong female role. And though Claire Foy is superbly committed and tangibly real as Janet , you can feel the film battling to include her. Yet often leaving her with little to do but wander dark halls after her children. There is one barnstorming visit to mission control but one suspects it’s as much a moment for the trailer and award ceremonies as the film.
Chazelle’s evolution as a filmmaker is best exemplified in how he deals with a horrific fire within a shuttle while locked in place on the pad. His decision not to depict or dwell on these horrific details is hugely mature. Instead, he allows the simple puffing of a sealed metal door to say it all. There is also a queasy dedication to close-ups intended to surely mirror an astronaut’s narrow field of vision. And remind an audience that the length and breadth and glory of space is mostly experienced not in some widescreen format but from cramped confines and iced windows.
Exuding a nervous, jittery energy throughout, the film will surely feature prominently at the Oscars on the technical side, with sound awards a near certainty. Other wins will surely hinge on whether audiences warm up to the fascinatingly cool film.
Tough. Tender. Terrific. First Man is a real five-star trip to the stars.