Hot from the success of 2016’s La La Land, Damien Chazelle returns with First Man, his personal take on the long and arduous road to getting a man on the moon. We all know how this story ends, but in this fable of astronomic ambition it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Despite previously having worked with Chazelle on La La Land, leading man Ryan Gosling proves the perfect fit to play the titular first man. Gosling’s trademark blank intensity captures Neil Armstrong’s famous taciturn interview technique and rejection of the limelight. Gosling’s Armstrong is a family man, one of obvious deeply felt emotion and determination. But he also remains frustratingly enigmatic, and we never quite cross that gap into his interior life.
This is true, perhaps, of the film’s supporting cast. It’s a stellar lineup and there is a refreshing lack of showboating all round, but as a result only a few key players really make their mark. Chief among them Claire Foy as Janet, Armstrong’s wife. She is the strong, independent, supportive character that one might expect from worthy drama such as this, but Foy makes a good go of it nonetheless.
The events of the film are firmly situated within the political context of the Space Race, but there is an intelligent lack of jingoistic flag-waving. Armstrong’s own motivations for being the first to walk on that alien surface is firmly rooted in the personal, while any political discourse is rooted not in nationalism, but in a celebration of this epic step forward for mankind.
Where First Man truly excels is in Linus Sandgren’s intimate cinematography. Eschewing classically framed grandeur in favour of humanistic close-ups, Chazelle evokes the literal and figurative scale of the endeavour through subjective, eye-level perspective – even if eye-level is sometimes a quarter million miles above the surface of the Earth. We first meet Armstrong pre-Apollo recruitment, during a hair-raising test flight. Sandgren employs the handheld, shaky cameras we’ve seen a thousand times before, but the grainy, era-evoking film conveys a truly visceral, lived-in experience, one which is revisited throughout the film.
The style is less successful during the strained conversations between Foy and Gosling, when the technique’s disorienting qualities threaten to obstruct the performances and the drama. But on the occasion when Chazelle’s camera pulls back to show the great beyond, the contrast is astonishing. Several times he uses negative space to fill the screen, with only a hint of the curvature of the earth to give us some orientation while Armstrong’s tiny craft drifts through the abyss.
Never has discussing the aspect ratio of a film felt more like a spoiler than here, so let’s just say that seeing First Man on the biggest IMAX screen is essential to the experience, and it’s no exaggeration that a few late moments approach the sublime. Nothing on the screen, or anywhere else, could ever hope to replicate the profound, transformative experience of walking on another world. But it is difficult to imagine that it could ever be captured more closely than here.
First Man is released in IMAX cinemas from Friday 12 October. odeon.co.uk
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell