If you're under 50, no one has walked on the moon in your lifetime. And if you've never been able to connect to the grainy black-and-white footage of mankind's giant leap, new space-race drama First Man gives you a stunningly real first-person view of the quest to touch the moon and stars.
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the first person to… well, as NASA turns 60, he hardly needs any introduction. Yet director Damien Chazelle brings something remarkably fresh to the familiar story of the space race by taking us inside the heads of the first astronauts to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.
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To do that, Chazelle largely shuts us in with Armstrong. As cockpit and capsule lids close on the astronauts, we spend whole sections of the film barely able to see anything but unblinking instruments, slivers of sky and star Ryan Gosling's eyes darting behind the glass of his helmet. Yet the result is gloriously cinematic.
The film is assembled with a measured and meticulous assurance, much like Armstrong himself. Chazelle stays away from wide shots to make First Man a distinctly first-person experience. We're locked inside the creaking, juddering, rattling capsules with Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, alarms squealing, dials going crazy and the sky yawing alarmingly in the corner of our eye.
Flashes of the tiniest details, such as rows of vulnerable rivets on the capsule wall, combine with expertly crafted sound design — unexplained bangs and terrifying metallic groans giving way to sudden all-encompassing silence — to make this a tour de force of immersive cinema.
You feel every nerve-racking moment of this situation you'd never otherwise experience. It's what cinema was made for.
Perhaps surprisingly, the camera is even more jittery on the ground than when blasting through space. The handheld camera bobs along close behind the characters' shoulders, giving it the feel of retro home movies. It feels natural and intimate, although the bouncing and bobbing gets a bit much when you're just trying to watch two people talking in a kitchen. This distractingly twitching lens suggests Armstrong and his ilk are more at home thousands of miles up with their lives on the line than they are in their actual homes, talking about their feelings with the people they love.
It's only when the astronauts escape the shackles of Earth that the camera, and the characters, become still. Only in space do they find silence and peace.
As with Chazelle's previous stories of male obsession, Whiplash and La La Land — and let's face it, most biopics — First Man is the story of a driven man whose sacrifices for a vision include lovers and family. Gosling plays Armstrong the astronaut as a self-contained cypher, an unflappable engineer whose crew-cut concentration borders on robotic. As this first man dedicates himself to his very important man work in his close-mouthed man way, it's easy to sympathise when his wife grows frustrated.
Claire Foy does most of the emotional heavy lifting portraying Neil's wife Janet Armstrong as vulnerable yet steely, and as driven in her own way as her husband. Foy is intensely sympathetic even as she's forced through the motions of the biopic bingo card: slammed doors, lip-quivering outbursts and wordless reconciliations familiar from a thousand and one other movies about brilliant dudes.
Slowly, the layers are drawn back to reveal hints of the man and emotion inside — and even a glimpse of a sense of humour. Gosling's understated, internal-facing performance is deftly pitched, though the subtlety means that when climactic emotional catharsis comes, it almost seems too big.
Armstrong was a famously humble, stolid man who refused to court the limelight, but surely you don't get to be the guy who crowns human achievement just by asking nicely. There's no room here for the pilots' improprieties recounted in books like The Astronaut Wives Club, no mention of the many astronaut divorces, or even of the thousands of backroom staff members who contributed to the space programme. First Man all but smooths out any ambition or ruthlessness in these men. And the hidden figures remain mostly hidden.
While the film touches on the personal loves of those involved, the only truly important thing is the mission. Chazelle and writer Josh Singer remain focused intently on the small steps that led to the giant leap, and it's captivating. Before the space-farers can go to the moon, they have to dock two craft. Before they can do that, they have to get into space without blowing up.
Like Singer's earlier movies Spotlight and The Post, First Man patiently unwraps the complex layers of this true story, laying bare without technobabble the technical challenges that go into spaceflight. On almost every mission, the cosmic pioneers discover life-threatening problems only when they're in the capsule or deep into the mission, and have to solve these problems on the fly. At one point, Armstrong notes that at a certain point in the atmosphere you have to slow down to speed up. "It's the opposite of what they teach you as a pilot," he tells his wife, adding "It's kinda neat."
The big question remains: With all these apparently insurmountable technical challenges, why spend billions of dollars leaping higher than ever when there are so many problems on the ground? And for those first men, why leave your family and potentially never come back?
Like everything in First Man, the answers are hinted at rather than made explicit. Chazelle and the filmmakers seem pretty clear on the nobility of the mission and the way space exploration brings a fresh, potentially unifying perspective to all of humanity. But the film doesn't shy away from the cost of the quest, in money, in lost opportunities to solve more earthly problems, and in the lives of the men who hurled themselves against the sky.
As meticulously constructed as the vehicles that went to the moon, as measured as the men who flew them, First Man confidently builds towards a fiery operatic climax. Ultimately you're invited to decide for yourself if the great leap was worth it. But 50 years on from the day humanity first walked on the moon, in a time of space tourism and Space Force and space junk, it's a timely reminder of why we aim for the stars.
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