Director Damien Chazelle continues his streak with First Man, a biopic depicting Neil Armstrong’s struggles and eventual success with his Herculean task.
Being one of the most iconic feats of human history, it’s a wonder that the 1969 moon landing have not been touched upon in popular film until First Man. This is particularly bemusing when we consider that Apollo 13, a mission much smaller in terms of its historical weight and urgency, has already been stroked by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Oscar-nominated brush. Of course, due to the dramatic nature of its near-fatal failure, it lends a similarly strong shoulder to cinema; but enough to be tackled before the space mission to define all space missions? Really?
I’m glad that Apollo 11 navigated away from the lens of a Ron Howard, a Zemeckis, or a Demme. These are all phenomenal filmmakers in their own right, but as Damien Chazelle has clearly proven with what may just go down as his magnum opus (I suspect it will age slightly better than Whiplash, despite that being my personal preference), Apollo 11 was bigger than just a phenomenal achievement for America and mankind.
In spite of Donald Trump’s lament that the American flag is never planted on screen, First Man is not a film about the moon landings in the sense that it wants to patriotically embellish the crowning moment of a nation. It is about the husband and father, the eponymous first man Neil Armstrong – portrayed with an enviable finesse by Ryan Gosling, in one of his better screen roles – who overcame the tremendous grief of losing his child to cancer, fought to find a new purpose, and stepped into the sea of tranquillity as a means of accepting her death.
In this respect, the narrative is fairly timeless: a protagonist overcoming existential grief by navigating a terrifying crucible is as old as King Lear. However, as with all timeless stories which are conducted with the kind of finesse which Chazelle has proven to bring, it simply excels. The stylistic choices that Chazelle employs to focus on Armstrong, as opposed to the wider space race, are nothing short of genius. In the more grounded, domestic scenes – those where we see Armstrong at parties with his colleagues, holding back the hair of his ill daughter, or simply having dinner with his wife (a fantastically confident Claire Foy) – an unsteady, grainy, 16mm camera is used, evoking a home video or fly-on-the-wall documentary in the same vein as Grey Gardens, additionally lending an appropriate feeling of vintage to Chazelle’s montage. These are moments of great privacy, and not those we associate with such an iconic name as Neil Armstrong.
When we eventually see the moon from Armstrong’s perspective, we blow up to 70mm IMAX: the beauty of both the moon’s surface and the infinite darkness of space gorgeously realised with crystal clarity. It’s no coincidence that the moment for IMAX comes when we hit the moon’s surface, as the reality of it all sinks into our protagonist; despite the gorgeous resolution, we remain close to Armstrong, focusing on this as his moment, as part of his own personal journey. It leads into a beautiful crescendo which will undoubtedly rub Gosling for an Oscar-nod and, if you’re a fan of a tear jerker, is worth the price of admission on its own. With First Man, Chazelle has articulately and confidently achieved not only a giant leap for mankind, but also a giant step for a filmmaker.