Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke
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Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling team up once again for this dizzying tale of the 1969 moon landing. But while the whole world knows what happened when Neil Armstrong touched down on that milky orb, Chazelle’s remarkable achievement is that he makes you forget for two hours that humankind’s most remarkable achievement ever took place.
That’s partly because it takes us head-first into the details and disasters that paved the way to that triumph. Delving into the lesser-known Gemini projects before the Apollo missions, we’re taken on a crushing tour of NASA’s failed attempts to beat the Russians in the Space Race – failures that cost lives time and time again.
But it’s also because First Man is equally focused on Neil’s internal journey, one that’s as remote as the rock he’s got his sights on. Gosling is withdrawn and reticent as Armstrong, a man who starts off quietly following a family bereavement and, as his colleagues around him dwindle in number, becomes a boiling pot of grief with the lid kept firmly on. There’s something fascinating and deeply tragic in the notion of one man’s drive to lift off and get away from everything, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the risk of near-certain death continues to grow.
It’s an impressive, committed performance from Gosling, although one that makes it hard to connect with his character. That means that the accessible heart of the film becomes Claire Foy as his wife, Janet, alienated from her husband and determinedly trying to raise their sons without a present dad. But Foy, while excellent as always, is sadly not given much screen time, and the script prefers to lean on the masculine bonds at NASA to highlight the losses sustained during these fraught years – the best scene in the film tellingly sees her tear through it with a rant about boys playing with balsa wood.
While that frustrates, especially in the wake of the brilliant, open-hearted Hidden Figures, it’s a conscious move by Chazelle and his direction never wavers, framing Armstrong even in his kitchen as a man in an isolated box. Cementing himself as a masterful storyteller in seemingly any genre, he ramps up tension like it’s strapped to a rocket, steadily pacing the journey towards an increasingly impossible feat – and puncturing that ride with bursts of astonishing visuals, genuinely scary aerial sequences and a first-hand, shaky depiction of launches that rivals Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The sound design alone is worth watching for, from the noises of pilots behind closed doors to the ticks and rattles of every fragile mechanical part. Fuelled by Justin Hurwitz’s otherworldly soundtrack, which sighs with the release of pent-up sadness, this is a compellingly intense portrait of something that’s barely staying together in one piece – and, from the opening scene to the moving final shot, the hollow shell that he’s trying to find a way back down to earth in.