Soar­ing, thought­ful take

The Herald (South Africa) - - Leisure - (8) FIRST MAN Di­rected by: Damien Chazelle Star­ring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chan­dler, Ja­son Clarke, Ciarán Hinds, Corey Stoll Re­viewed by: Rob­bie Collin

Sunk in po­lit­i­cal bed­lam at home and abroad, will the US ever lead the world again? That is one of the ques­tions posed by First Man, the new film from Damien Chazelle, which pre­sents the last leg of the Space Race as seen through the eyes of Ryan Gosling’s Neil Arm­strong, the aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer turned Nasa as­tro­naut who would go on to win it by one small, fate­ful step.

Ad­mir­ers of the 33-year-old di­rec­tor’s two re­cent crowd­pleasers, Whiplash and La La Land, might be rea­son­ably ex­pect­ing a snappy, per­son­al­i­ty­driven biopic with lots of men in short-sleeved shirts wav­ing fist­fuls of pa­per in the air.

But First Man, which was adapted by Josh Singer (Spot­light, The Post) from an Arm­strong bi­og­ra­phy by James R Hansen, is a very dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion: less a slinky mil­len­nial take on The Right Stuff than John Cas­savetes goes to outer space, with lived-in per­for­mances, hand­held cam­er­a­work with pe­riod-per­fect film grain and a colour pal­ette full of the ochres of mid-cen­tury, mid­dle-class US do­mes­tic life.

It cen­tres on a thought­ful, tamped-down star turn from Gosling, whose Arm­strong is both a reluc­tant hero and a man mired in grief, fol­low­ing the loss of his two-year-old daugh­ter Karen to an in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mour in 1962.

The early sight of the young girl ly­ing on a hospi­tal bed be­neath a huge ra­dio­ther­apy rig is the clos­est the film ever comes to sci­ence fic­tion, and it is an im­age that res­onates un­til the film’s skin-prick­lingly staged lu­nar cli­max.

Wisely, Chazelle has opted to leave spec­ta­cle to the block­busters and in­stead aims for awe – which is re­lated, but dif­fer­ent, and harder to pull off.

First Man chases awe from its 1961-set open­ing se­quence, in which Arm­strong, then a govern­ment test pi­lot, flies an ex­per­i­men­tal X-15 air­craft high enough for the ship to “bounce off the at­mos­phere” on its de­scent. Li­nus Sand­gren’s cam­era re­mains in the cock­pit through­out, squir­relling into any nook it can find, mak­ing Arm­strong’s panic ours, as the hull lets out un­holy groans and the al­time­ter spins and pops.

Then, as his flight­path crests, the planet’s rain­bow rim re­flects in his vi­sor and his amaze­ment be­comes ours too. There is sig­nif­i­cantly less amaze­ment back on Earth, and a lot more hard work. It would be too sim­ple to say First Man only takes off when it, ahem, takes off: the ground-level drama is what gives the ex­trater­res­trial parts their emo­tional stakes.

But there is some­thing very me­thod­i­cal about the film’s route through Arm­strong’s per­sonal his­tory: a lit­tle do­mes­tic drama in­volv­ing Arm­strong’s first wife Janet (Claire Foy), rais­ing their two sons on the un­der­stand­ing that her hus­band might not sur­vive his work­ing week, then some cri­sis at Nasa when a test fails, or the Sovi­ets make an­other head­line­grab­bing ad­vance, then re­peat.

The sup­port­ing per­for­mances are strong: Foy is rather doomed to play­ing a stay-ath­ome housewife be­cause that is who Janet was, but the part has a bit more tex­ture than the usual stereo­type.

Kyle Chan­dler and Ciarán Hinds are brusque Nasa func­tionar­ies, Ja­son Clarke well­cast as an­other as­tro­naut, Ed White, and Corey Stoll has fun as Buzz Aldrin, whom the film paints as a pain in the neck, but a nat­u­ral at han­dling the press.

Arm­strong him­self is an in­tro­vert, which is per­haps why the film leans into his per­sonal tragedy as much as it does: it al­lows us to feel for a char­ac­ter who lets lit­tle else slip.

It also gives an emo­tional un­der­tow to the moon land­ing fi­nale it­self – which, it is im­plied, gives Arm­strong the lit­er­ally un­earthly per­spec­tive re­quired to process his heart­break­ing loss. The less said in ad­vance about this stag­ger­ing se­quence the bet­ter, other than that it crack­les with eeri­ness and won­der, looks ut­terly real, and is the rea­son to see First Man on the big­gest cinema screen you can find.

Chazelle has al­ways spe­cialised in vir­tu­oso end­ings, and his sure hand and sharp eye brings this am­bi­tious char­ac­ter study smoothly into land. – The Tele­graph

DIF­FER­ENT TAKE: Ryan Gosling plays a reluc­tant hero and a man mired in grief in ‘First Man’

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