First Man is worlds away from director Damien Chazelle’s previous films, La La Land and Whiplash – yet, incredibly, the same themes of ambition, determination and sacrifice are once again present in another stunning outing for Chazelle.
First Man, as expected, charts NASA’s efforts to reach the moon, from the early Gemini and Apollo missions right up to the famous moon landing in July 1969. What is perhaps unexpected is that it isn’t really about the moon landing at all, instead focusing on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the impact the mission had on his co-workers, his relationship with his family and on Neil himself.
Topping an impressive cast is Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, who shine as Neil and Janet Armstrong as they go through some truly trying events. Gosling is heartbreaking as the man who is outwardly cold and professional yet crumbling underneath. He portrays a reserved and private man whilst managing to convey his inner turmoil. Claire Foy too is resolute as his wife who struggles with the fallout of Neil’s career; two of the film’s most powerful scenes show her putting Neil and NASA in their place due to the impact the moon mission is having on her family. Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler provide strong support as Neil’s NASA colleagues who all too often remind him of what is at risk, rounding off a strong cast full of remarkable performances.
Despite the space scenes not being the focal point of the film, they’re spectacular. Rarely giving us an exterior look of the ship, Chazelle keeps the camera inside the cockpit to give a claustrophobic, frenetic, incredibly personal and realistic portrayal of 1960s space travel. When something goes wrong in space you don’t just see the effects, you feel them – through excessive shaking, disorientating cuts and Gosling’s pained expression it is hard not to believe that you too are in that cockpit. As for the inevitable moon landing scene, it doesn’t disappoint and creates one of the film’s most emotional and stunning sequences. Despite being a relatively calm and short scene the end result is beautiful, celebrating the vastness of the moon, the scope of humanity’s achievement and most importantly delivering a fitting emotional end to Neil’s arc.
This film is an in-depth character biopic, and those looking for an over-dramatic and action-packed race to the moon will be disappointed. But for those who came to see the story of Neil Armstrong, First Man soars.
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