TAKING one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, landing on the moon, and telling the story virtually as a tragedy is a pretty significant creative risk.
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the American astronaut who became the first human being to set foot on the moon, and rather than focusing on the more spectacular aspects of the space flight, this film spends most of its time examining Armstrong as a person.
And while the space flight and moon landing sequences are beautifully shot and rendered, what is most spectacular about First Man is the nuance and compassion of this character study of one of the world’s most famous people.
Based on the biography written by James R. Hansen, First Man paints a portrait of a pensive and broken Armstrong. His calm, logical and unflappable demeanour made him indispensable to the moon landing program, but the events that turned him into this person were tragic and crushing.
The death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, from a brain tumour at the age of two was the kind of tragedy that would break any person. And it is well known that her death put enormous strain on Armstrong’s marriage, and her loss haunted him all his life.
First Man takes that theme and threads it together with the devastating parade of loss and death that followed Armstrong throughout his career, including the loss of several of his NASA comrades, and crafts a story of how this kind of deep pain and grief can shape a person who is already rebuilding himself from the ground up.
Gosling is magnificent in the role, giving a delicate and understated performance that gives us brief but tantalising glimpses of the humanity and joy behind the almost impenetrable facade of detachment and stoicism he created around himself.
The Armstrong we see here is a man who is carrying an unimaginable amount of pain, and it only compounds as the story progresses, chronicling his descent from an emotionally functional family man to being utterly broken but holding it all together in the only way he knows how.
Claire Foy ( The Crown) also gives an arresting performance as Armstrong’s wife Janet, arguably the only person in Armstrong’s life who is suffering more than he is as she copes not only with the loss of their child, but with the ever-present threat of losing her husband as well.
There is an ominous sense of fear and doom preceding each of the space flights depicted in the film, even the ones in which no lives were lost.
And as we see every death through the pained eyes of Armstrong, the tension builds so steadily throughout the film that by the time we finally see Apollo 11 blast off, I was feeling almost physically ill from the strain and anxiety.
Director Damien Chazelle (who most recently directed Gosling in La La Land) has crafted a hauntingly beautiful film in First Man, combining an affecting story with an aesthetic that alternates between a hand-held documentary and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There is a lot of shaky-cam going on here, but it is one of those rare cases in which the style is warranted, and it works. The unsteady whipping and wobbling of the camera in certain ground-based scenes adds an unsettling sense of tension and anxiety to the dialogue, and when the shaking is dialled up to its jarring, nausea-inducing zenith during the space flight sequences, it very effectively invokes a sense of disorientation and terror.
And of course it is difficult not to draw comparisons to Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece in the undeniably beautiful ballet-like sequences of spacecraft in flight, tumbling and rolling in total silence, both dizzying and gorgeous.
Chazelle makes excellent use of silence in many parts of the film other than space flight. At times the score is almost overwhelming, when it needs to create a sense of