First Man – a beautiful and fearless odyssey of discovery
Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle collaborate again to stunning effect with the story of the race to the moon in FIRST MAN
Wow. What can I say about FIRST MAN? Well, for starters it was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had in the cinema this year. Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning ‘Best Director’ of La La Land has re-teamed with his La La Land star, the incomparable Ryan Gosling, and they have produced a beautiful and intensely moving odyssey about what it cost to land on the moon.
I’ve always loved stories of man’s exploration into space and I was seriously looking forward to seeing this after the fabulous trailer I posted about in August. But I was so completely bowled over by this movie, I walked out of the cinema after the screening – on the first day of its UK release – feeling quite shell-shocked. And I don’t think I’ve come down to earth since, as I’ve tried to write my review whilst looking for an opportunity to see this marvellous movie again. I’ll try to convey some of what I think makes this film one for the ages, as it celebrates the fearlessness of these men who risked so much to discover the unknown.
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong testing the limits of an X-15
The opening sequence of FIRST MAN is bravura storytelling, setting the tone for the rest of the movie and for the fact you’ll be gasping with astonishment at what you see. We are introduced to Gosling’s Neil Armstrong in a flight of the X-15 aircraft he’s testing. Right here you see the bravery of a man who is willing to push the jet to ever greater heights to find its breaking point.
The film covers the years in his life from 1961 to 1969 when Armstrong went from naval test pilot to the commander of Apollo 11. But underpinning the events that were globally significant, Chazelle always brings us back to showing us the man behind the iconic astronaut, as we see the personal cost Armstrong endured throughout those years. The quiet, reserved Neil is in contrast to his warm and open-hearted wife Janet, expertly portrayed by Claire Foy. Their home life suffers an unimaginable tragedy early on in the story but it’s potentially this loss which drove Armstrong to risk everything to achieve the impossible.
“I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But just haven’t been able to until now.”
Armstrong’s answer to one of the questions in his interview to join NASA typified his character. He was a man of reticence – some people would say distant or difficult to get to know – but he also possessed an intelligence to see things, as he said, in a unique way. Which is possibly what made him NASA’s first civilian astronaut, as at the time in the late 1950s only military test pilots could apply. It’s been noted that one aspect of Ryan Gosling’s prodigious talent is that he’s tremendous at acting what isn’t said – his recent incredible performance in Blade Runner 2049 is a great example of this. And so he really is the perfect choice for playing a man with a powerful but quiet drive to succeed whilst also showing us, in key moments, the personal turmoil he was struggling to contain.
Gosling as Neil Armstrong with Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin and Lukas Haas as Mike Collins at the press conference for the moon launch
Chazelle’s cast is dazzling though, across the board. The brilliant Corey Stoll is Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s pilot to his commander on the Apollo 11 moon mission. And other major colleagues at NASA include Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds as Mission Control execs Deke Slayton and Bob Gilruth respectively. Then there’s Jason Clarke as Apollo 1 astronaut Ed White, Patrick Fugit as trainee astronaut Elliot See, and Lukas Haas as the third member of the Apollo 11 crew Mike Collins. It’s also fascinating to see Pablo Schreiber as Apollo 11 backup crew member Jim Lovell, only a year before the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission which Ron Howard recreated so marvellously in his 1995 film.
What differentiates Chazelle’s movie from that though is the director’s impressive choice to shoot so much of the story from the point of view of the astronauts, so that the audience is literally in the pilot’s seat on these missions. It’s a genius decision. And one that rewards you, the viewer, with an intensely thrilling ride in those sequences. Chazelle’s expert director of photography from La La Land, Linus Sandgren can also take credit here, framing the domestic scenes with an intimacy by using 16mm film, switching to 35mm for the space sequences and then stunningly using IMAX for the landing on the moon. La La Land’s Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz contributes masterfully to all these moments as well with a beautiful, sweeping score. There’s a similarly epic feel to the astronaut sequences that fuses elements of the theremin – a favourite sound of the Armstrongs – with a string-led main score which is extremely evocative and moving.
“As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own.”
Said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at Armstrong’s death in 2012. This isn’t depicted in the film but the statement seems to embody the huge sense of pride that I felt as the credits began to roll on FIRST MAN. Pride for the courage and heroic nature of the men who took that amazing but dangerous odyssey. As I sat in the cinema, I honestly thought I could wait for the next screening and watch it all over again. It’s that good. So, do go and see it and hopefully, you’ll know why I felt that. Actually, FIRST MAN isn’t just good. It’s out of this world. Forgive the space reference but one critic has already called it that. I’m not the first. It’s very fitting though because Chazelle’s meticulous recreation of the race to the moon is exactly that. It’s a deeply emotional, thrilling, visceral ride into the unknown which you absolutely cannot miss.