Sky’s the limit for Chazelle
First Man (12A) ●●●●
Not many directors launch their mainstream careers with a one-two punch as strong as Whiplash and La La Land.
As a result, it’s safe to say Damien Chazelle marked himself down as one of the most exciting talents in Hollywood, and now he’s back with a biopic – of sorts – of legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Chazelle’s La La Land leading man Ryan Gosling plays the first man to walk on the moon and the flick concentrates on Armstrong’s journey to one of the most dangerous missions in the history of space travel.
First Man marks a change of pace for Chazelle as he hands over writing duties for the first time – to Spotlight and The Post scribe Josh Singer, adapting James R Hansen’s book – and jettisons the musical theme of his earlier work.
But the director doesn’t lose any of his creativity or sharp sense of visual storytelling; the space-set scenes in particular are worthy of comparison with the likes of Kubrick and Nolan.
Like those two auteurs, Chazelle takes his time as he lets Singer’s story breath, allowing the characters to feel fully fleshed out ahead of the central trip to space.
To some, it may be a little too slow as lengthy stretches of dialogue abound but with words and acting this strong it was easy to maintain my attention.
Thankfully the script also steers clear of bombarding our brains with scientific terms only a NASA expert would know – or dumbing things down to an offensive degree.
Gosling continues to prove a dab hand at a diverse range of roles and gets right under Armstrong’s skin. This isn’t a cardboard cut-out of an American hero ripped from newspaper headlines; he’s a flawed, bordering on the obsessive, father dealing with a horrendous personal tragedy alongside the pressures of reaching the moon.
His performance is similar to his turn in Blade Runner 2049 and everything the character is going through makes you forgive his coldness and often blank expressions; it’s all about the inner turmoil.
One-time Queen Elizabeth II and soon-to-be new Lisbeth Salander, Claire Foy does powerful work too as Armstrong’s wife Janet. What could have been a bog-standard ‘worried woman at home’ role is transformed into something more by Foy’s frustration, tenderness and urgency.
Where First Man really soars, though, is during the climactic journey; Chazelle takes something that should be predictable and adds moments of tension and uncertainty.
We’re right in the cockpit with Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew which adds a claustrophobic mix of wonder and sheer panic.
First Man doesn’t quite match the brilliance of Whiplash and La La Land but, by proving he can turn his hand to something different, it arguably enhances Chazelle’s already rocket-fuelled reputation.
To the moon and back Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong