By Ryan Keating-Lambert
First Man is a refreshing take on a story we’ve heard a million times. It’s an ‘apollo movie’ that’s been stripped of its patriotism and heroics, and instead focuses on brutal realism and success through failure.
Directed by the Oscar-winning Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land), First Man is based on the true events surrounding a young Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and America’s eventual moon-landing.
There’s been a good run of realistic and fact-based space films of late, including Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Most of these films have a tendency to go big budget and large scale where cinematography is concerned, and who can blame them, space is epic. However, Chazelle and director of photography Linus Sandgren, who also did impeccable work on La La Land, takes the camera out of the infinite depths of space, and instead crams it into the tiny and very claustrophobic metal cans that these astronauts somehow survived in, or didn’t survive in.
It’s this feeling of claustrophobia that gives the film most of its impact. Not only is it sobering to learn of how many astronauts and close friends of Armstrong died in failed attempts just to get into space, but to see them take on dangerous tests in these early space vehicles is even horrifying at times, made only more intense from the genius sound design by Ai-Ling Lee. The EVA launch scene is absolutely terrifying and reminded me of the Nostromo self-destruction countdown in Alien, complete with dizzying alarms and all.
Chazelle certainly provides a more balanced look at NASA’s achievements here and never quite gives in to the temptation of making Armstrong ‘just another American hero’. For every success, there are multiple failures that precede and this is continually touched upon over the course of the 2-hour film, whether it be through Armstrong’s wife Janet ‘getting good at funerals’ after attending so many, or Armstrong himself explaining nervously to the press that they need to ‘fail down here so they can succeed up there’.
This isn’t the first time that Chazelle has investigated these kinds of themes, both Whiplash and La La Land ask similar questions about what it means to fail, and the director has a knack for really getting into the human psyche.
The characters are hounded with one tragedy after another in this film but it’s still invigorating and thrilling to watch them get through. Gosling portrays Armstrong’s struggle, including the loss of his own daughter, with an expression that occasionally come off as wooden. I’m not sure if that was Armstrong’s way of dealing with loss or if it’s just Gosling in general? Either way, Claire Foy is remarkable as Janet Armstrong. She’s the rock of the family and the only person that seems to see the sheer ridiculousness of NASA’s ambitions.
And let’s face it, the mission really was ridiculous and First Man never paints it in the brightest of lights which is a welcomed change to the genre – the equipment is grimy and retro, and the astronauts are constantly victims to their own human error. It feels like these characters are motivated more by their personal goals rather than becoming national heroes, and it’s very moving to watch.
First Man will be one of the best films you see this year, catch the FUTURE GATE premiere screening in Prague’s Kino Lucerna on October 10th.