It is arguable that man setting foot on the moon for the first time ranks as the pinnacle of human achievement. A searing moment of glory that encapsulates the very best of human endeavour and triumph. It’s strange then that Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the story of the enterprise and risk involved with placing the first boot on the lunar surface, should be so devoid of emotion. Technically exhilarating and often visually eye-popping, First Man, is also a weirdly joyless experience that has you marvelling at the fact that humans managed to get to the moon, but also wondering why they bothered.
This Neil Armstrong biopic with Ryan Gosling in the lead role flanked by Claire Foy as his first wife Janet attempts to wrap the stuttering, but ultimately triumphant, story of the race to the moon around a story of personal loss and acceptance. Armstrong’s daughter died of cancer at the age of two – a tragedy that is witnessed in the opening movements of the film – with his subsequent efforts to achieve what no human has previously achieved seen as a full-stop on a grieving process that appears to have driven him.
It’s strange then that the story feels so emotionally muted and particularly joyless. Armstrong was, by all accounts, something of an unknowable character but as reasonable as this might be in reality, it does not make for emotionally engaging storytelling. Gosling is back to is most inscrutable here: a blank-faced image of humanity that seems less relatable than the machinery that surrounds him. Foy’s wife appears to be on-hand mainly to hammer home a point about marital disharmony and their scenes together, of which there are much fewer than expected, seems designed principally to highlight the contrast of downbeat domesticity with the cut and thrust of NASA life. As close to the truth as that may be, it seems to lower the stakes a little and dilute the heft.
In the technical department, the movie is on terra firma and Chazelle does manage to make his movie excel visually. It blasts off with a breath-taking flight into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, Chazelle’s camera in the cockpit, up close and personal with Armstrong feeling every jolt of the aircraft. Later, as Armstrong and his colleagues take to the skies, you hear every disconcerting clang and rumble of the rocket and shake of the fuselage as if you were there yourself. The sound is overwhelming at times, an auditory experience that takes you by the lapels and rattles you senseless.
There are moments of exhilaration as Armstrong takes flight, but punctuated with periods that are emotionally as barren as the moon itself.
Chris Banks | [rating=3]
Drama, History | UK, 12 October (2018) | Universal Pictures | Dir. Damien Chazelle | Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott.
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