The space race is a well-known story and is perhaps one of the defining moments of American history in the 20th Century. Not only did it propel America forward as a nation (in the eyes of many), but it helped launch science-fiction into the mainstream consciousness. Since then we've had countless films centred around space exploration, of fiction and non-fiction origin. So what inspired Damien Chazelle to venture into this? Whilst First Man is patently a step away from his two wildly successful musical based dramas in 'Whiplash' and 'La La Land' in terms of subject and tone, like those two previous films, this is a story of obsession and the price that people pay for that.
A couple of years ago, Chazelle was given a book titled 'First Man: The Life of Neil A.Armstrong', the official biography, and Chazelle said that he became enraptured in this story of personal tragedy and professional sacrifice, amongst public achievement. Despite 'never being into space exploration stories' but enamoured with cinema as an entire art form in a general sense, whilst growing up, he decided to take this film on.
Just as Whiplash and La La Land's opening scenes set the tone of both films, Whiplash with the frantic and frenetic energy and La La Land with that bright, colourful dance number on the Los Angeles highway, First Man opens with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as a young test pilot in 1962, launching solo into space. The pace is slow and considered. There is little by way of dialogue and visually, we are struck with awe. The film follows Armstrong's journey through the 1960s, in the lead up to the that famous moment in 1969 when (spoiler) he becomes the first man to walk on the moon.
Early on in the story, Armstrong is hit with a family tragedy, and the film finds its emotional anchor in the aftermath of this. Gosling portrays a man with emotionally crippling grief, who internalises his pain completely, drawing him away from his wife Janet (Claire Foy in outwardly emotionally engaging form) and his two sons. Ryan Gosling echoes his own performances in Drive, Blade Runner 2049 and Lars and the Real Girl, in his ability to portray an ocean of pain and anguish underneath a stoic surface. Whilst audiences may struggle to connect with a lead character so introverted, in a film with a slow pace, the supporting cast (Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke) help to keep the wider story in focus, whilst giving us more to root for, along with Foy, who is excellent as the audience's emotional surrogate.
Not only is First Man an emotional drama, but a technical marvel too. It owes as much to recent films in Dunkirk, Gravity and Interstellar as it does to older science stories like Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and 2001: A Space Odyssey (is there film about space that doesn't owe something to 2001?). Nathan Crowley, who also served as production designer on 'Interstellar' and 'Dunkirk', helps bring the visceral & immersive nature of this film to life, a necessity in suspending our disbelief for an 'out of this world' tale. In production, green screens were abandoned, in favour of building real sets for the NASA training program and the space shuttles that the crew were sent in. Upon watching these scenes, it's impossible to not feel the trepidation of the crew as they clamour into the claustrophobic shuttles, made of no more than nuts, bolts and metal sheets. Whilst the camera is bolted onto the side of these rocket ships as they catapult beyond the earth's atmosphere, making us feel as though we're right there with them, akin to the electrifying dog-fight scenes in the recent WW2 drama Dunkirk. Whilst the early family scenes carry a heaviness, underlined by the pain and grief of the family tragedy, as powerful an echo of Terence Malick's Tree of Life as there has been in recent years.
Chazelle is smart in his appropriation of his camera work. He shuns the wide-scope of a 65mm camera (often used in films of such scale), in favour of a grainy, handheld 16mm for the entirety of the first act, invading the personal space of each character and drawing us into their internal conflict. The second act steps up to the more familiar 35mm aspect ratio for the sequences filmed at NASA and a large chunk of the story focussed on progression of the space-race. When we finally arrive at the moon landing, Chazelle opts for 65mm horizontal IMAX cameras, which achieve such a grand visual scope that it's hard to not be breath-taken. The technical aspects of the film walk hand-in-hand with the emotional progression. As we venture to outer space, we venture inward with Armstrong as he comes to terms with his grief. This is not an easy film to watch, nor easy themes to grapple with, but an earnest audience will be well rewarded.
Whilst this is no fast-paced, kinetic musical drama or Hollywood romance, akin to Chazelle's previous films, this is still a film about the power of obsession and how far people will go in for this, be they inspired by passion or pain. In trading the bright colours and energy for something more subdued and downbeat, Chazelle proves that he really is a superb storyteller, capable of impressive scope.
First Man is in cinemas now.
Review by Dave Howarth