Film Review – First Man (2018)

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Damien Chazelle never makes the same kind of film twice.  And, if his enviable track record is anything to go by, it’s working.  At just 33, he already has two Oscar winners under his belt: the electrifying Whiplash, which won three, and the gorgeously romantic La La Land, which took home twice as many little gold men.  What are the chances that First Man, will take him to, even more, dare we say it, stellar heights?

His first venture into true story territory goes back to 1969 and NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to put a man on the moon, in its day something that stretched both the boundaries of science and the public imagination.  We all know that Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on the Sea Of Tranquility and that he was followed by the fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin.  The build-up to the mission and the difficulties it faced are probably less familiar.

Chazelle’s approach to the story means that knowing the ending is almost irrelevant.  From the very start, he challenges our assumed knowledge and finds it wanting.  Ten minutes of bone-rattling buffeting and shaking inside a space capsule open proceedings, with the only human voice coming from Mission Control.  It’s a breathtaking cinema and just a taster of what’s to come.  So much for what looks like a smooth take-off when the spacecraft is propelled into the air.  It’s nothing like that on the inside: the conditions are claustrophobic, deeply uncomfortable and physically unpleasant.  Gravity this most certainly isn’t.

Nor are we ever allowed to forget that the astronauts were putting their lives at risk every step of the way.  There are accidents, explosions, and death even before the rocket is launched, the most traumatic killing three of the original crew.  Filmed with devastating simplicity, it just shows the speed of the fire that broke out and a sudden indentation in the hatch door.  And that’s it.  Our imagination tells us everything else we need to know.  Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), sums it up when she forcibly reminds the scientists that they don’t really know what they’re doing: there’s a limit to their knowledge and this isn’t just a voyage into space, it’s into the unknown.

While the narrative is driven by science, Chazelle’s interest is primarily in the people.  He uses close-ups relentlessly throughout, creating an intimacy with the characters, constantly examining their emotions and thoughts through his piercing lens.  It demands a subtle style of acting, which Ryan Gosling executes perfectly as Armstrong, an understated character in his own right.  He’s not a natural communicator, deeply awkward in work situations where he has to press the flesh and equally uncomfortable when it comes to telling his son about his job.  A stark contrast to Aldrin (Corey Stoll), who is something of a surprise package – tactless in the extreme with the rest of the crew, but an absolute gift when put in front of the press pack.  Foy is spirited as the wife waiting at home, although there are times when you wish she had even more to do.

Aside from all those close-ups, there are some startling images – the horizon reflected on Armstrong’s visor is pure cinematic genius – and, in complete contrast to all the noise that goes with space flight, there are equally stunning moments of silence.  Yet again, Chazelle has delivered something different to his other films – in terms of its camerawork, the part played by music and its emotional pull.  This time around, we know the outcome, yet we’re in constant fear of what will happen to the astronauts.  And sometimes that tension is unbearable.

Freda Cooper | [rating=4]

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.