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First Man (2018)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Ethan Embry, Ciarán Hinds, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit
First Man, the 2018 mid-budget Universal release from Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle, will be about the most divisive movie of the year when 2018 comes to a close, owing much of this to its detachment of visual ecstasy from its understated means of progressing its narrative, and the contrast between its phenomenal score and Ryan Gosling’s almost non-acting form of lead performance. But let’s make one thing clear: if you’re going to see a movie about landing on the moon, this probably isn’t the one for you.
Damien Chazelle’s visual palette in First Man is one likened by many to that of Christopher Nolan’s in Interstellar – that being that it’s beautifully shot, spectacularly computer generated and presented almost as if at a distance from the parts of us that feel emotion, specifically that of empathy – and while this mild back-handed compliment does hold credence, the jobs that both directors did on their respective space voyaging movies both owe a lot more to the work of Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey as opposed to one another, with Chazelle’s offering actually surpassing Nolan’s in terms of total commitment to the iconography and themes of Kubrick’s legendary work – in First Man space is unfamiliar, not at all sympathetic, it doesn’t take sides and it is entirely unforgiving. This is no mild back-handed compliment, this is absolute praise: First Man at times looks like Kubrick himself made it.
Powered on by a clear front-runner for Best Score this coming awards season (as composed by regular collaborator Justin Hurwitz), Chazelle creates a sense of dread and underlying anger beneath the wonder of space exploration, of finding out what’s on the moon. The human sacrifice of NASA’s ultimate pursuit is presented as if a common occurrence, with the characters themselves allowed zero respite before their next attempts at advancing their prospects. At no time is the feat of this movie’s central protagonist – the first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (Gosling) – celebrated or championed, it is instead only presented as if through a non-judgemental eye, with the focus instead shifting onto the themes more central to this particular story: honour, obsession, isolation and most potently, fulfilment.
First Man is not a movie about the space race, or even so much about landing on the moon, but is instead a picture about obsession and the white man’s pursuit of absolute fulfilment, a micro-expression of America’s vision of itself as a deeply distressed but never reluctant hero; an honourable quiet man that attempts to suppress its historic anguish and instead only pursues greater meaning. Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is America itself in this most American of tales, the movie offering a posthumous look at the development of the country throughout the 20th century, though notably only doing so through a lens as tilted as that of space-race propaganda and one as equally centred on the white middle class.
At the hub of that work is Ryan Gosling who leans into the angst-ridden aspects of his star persona almost entirely here, while ditching so much of the heart-throb aspects that have made him such a watchable performer in recent years, including in his past collaboration with Chazelle on La La Land. Never has Gosling seemed so plain, though there are nuances to his performance that are so well timed it’s barely noticeable that minutes have gone by with little to no reason to care for his character. Even while stripping himself of so much that is worth identifying him with, there remains a watchability about Gosling, a presence that drags this movie somewhere close to a force for empathy despite some rather large missteps in character creation and the way some scenes are thrown in only to remind us of his humanity; scenes that clearly feel out of place due to their obviously negative impact on the pace of the picture.
It is either as a side effect or entirely because of this that Gosling’s co-star Claire Foy seems so identifiable as the lead’s on-screen wife, and that her performance particularly stands out. Consistently, hers is the role we look to as a viewer to see evidence for love, pain and sadness, and it is therefore through her eyes that we truly see Neil Armstrong, it is through her eyes that we come to understand the immensity of the astronaut’s pursuit of greater and greater exploration. Foy is sensational in the supporting role, providing all she needs to and more as a strong, stubborn, of-her-era housewife who maintains a strong upper lip and quietly controls her household while remaining entirely at the mercy of her husband’s professional decisions. Her fragility beneath the power is what truly brings the performance home, as there remains something so human in her every action that she is an entirely unmissable aspect of the picture.
In a sense, First Man presents the central relationship of these two characters, and the temporariness of the NASA working family, as if that of an army squadron, with the wives staying at home and anticipating the worst, dreading a knock on the door and attempting to raise their children in as safe of an environment as possible. Technologically, Chazelle’s work with cinematographer Linus Sandgren also reinforces this, with a 16mm and 35mm lens operating to present the movie’s most intense shaky-cam moments that have more in common with the grainy opening of Saving Private Ryan than anything from a space movie like Apollo 13, while the landing itself was shot in beautiful iMax that truly showed off the size, scope and wonder of the moon and space while also effectively reinforcing how truly baron both are. The transition from tight, personal shots that are filled with Gosling’s presence to ones that have a massive scope is a jarring one, but it works for the picture by reinforcing the magnitude of the achievement and how truly scary achieving it must have been, working at least from within the camera as a true force of empathy for the Armstrong character and truly driving home his sacrifices.
This isn’t a film with a clear political message as regards the space race or conspiracy theories, but it is a truly American movie clearly misjudged by the anticipatory masses after the trailer failed to showcase the American flag on the moon. It’s a beautifully constructed piece of visual cinema with a score perhaps more sensational than any other in recent years, a deeply intrinsic and personal work (akin to that of Chazelle’s debut feature Whiplash) that uses the sheer depth of space as a tool to look deeper into Armstrong’s journey and thus ourselves. This movie won’t be for everyone, and criticisms of it failing to acknowledge the wider context of the space race or American society at the time are totally valid when judging the picture on its directness, but just as Whiplash wasn’t about Jazz, First Man isn’t about the moon landing so much as it’s about Armstrong personally or America as a nation looking back on itself. While it isn’t an audience-pleasing action-adventure with an uplifting undercurrent as could have been suggested by its subject matter, it is a superb piece of art from a director who’s quickly establishing an ouevre of intimate and astute works; a strong and powerful piece that may be better remembered moving forward than it has been at the time of its release.