First Man Review: An affecting, human look at the first man on the moon
Stunning cinematography and immsersive sound elevate this emotion-driven story of Neil Armstrong, ably acted by its two leads - Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy
First Man is about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, the man famous for the words: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The film isn't your garden variety biopic that tells its story from his birth. It focuses only on the period from when Armstrong joins the space programme to when he landed on the moon. It isn't a thump-your-chest patriotic ode to that marvellous feat. It's less about celebrating that small step and more about all the steps that went before it: like the cost of that achievement, for instance. There was the financial cost, yes, and the film touches on debates over that, with both politicians and the public questioning if it is worth all the tax money (the use of Gil Scott-Heron's poem, Whitey on the Moon, is inspired as it also addresses the racial inequality in the space race). But what director Damien Chazelle is more concerned about is the human cost; the many human lives lost along the way -- one scene about this is gut-wrenching.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll
Director: Damien Chazelle
And then, there's the cost to relationships. First Man, interestingly enough, is as much about Neil Armstrong's wife, Janet (playing brilliantly by Claire Foy), as it is about the famous astronaut. It’s as much about the strain upon their marriage and family. A tragedy early in the film shakes their relationship and after Neil joins the space programme, he withdraws further and further into himself, leaving Janet isolated. But she does her best to bring up her children while dealing with the uncertainty that comes with her husband's job (At one point, she wryly remarks to a friend that she married Neil because she wanted a conventional and stable life). She nervously listens to the communication between her husband up in space and Mission Control. When she finally confronts her husband about taking on his share of emotional labour, she doesn't fly off the handle, but firmly tells him what he needs to do. Foy is stunning in this scene, portraying just the right amount of strength and vulnerability.
Ryan Gosling matches Foy and turns in an extremely convincing performance as the efficient engineer/astronaut who bottles his emotions more and more as the film progresses. Quite unlike his extroverted fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Neil has a quiet demeanour that gives away very little of what he's feeling. But he is by no means unfeeling. Chazelle beautifully illustrates this in the scene where Neil receives news about a friend having lost his life during a pre-launch test. Neil only sheds tears twice in the film, and both times, it is deeply affecting.
Chazelle also does well by keeping the grandeur of space out until the very end. Throughout the film, he and cinematographer Linus Sandgren keep us tied to the characters' point of view and a lot of what we see is the disorienting shaking inside the space crafts (so much so that I was actually glad I didn't catch the film on IMAX!) Also, the scenes in Mission Control, and NASA in general, have a cinéma vérité feel to them which really helps immerse us in the proceedings. A special nod here to the music and sound departments here for aiding in creating this immersive experience.
When Chazelle finally does show us the surface of the moon in all its splendour, it makes quite an impact. But again, the filmmaker's aim is clearly not to celebrate this incredible feat of a man getting sent to the moon. He makes this clear by having the soundtrack go quiet when Neil takes his first step and says those famous words. That's not what he wants us to focus on. He lingers instead on the emotional scene that follows. And while he could have chosen to end the film there, he goes a step further -- he brings Neil back to earth and gives us that final scene that brings us back down to earth too.