Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this technically accomplished biopic that ultimately fails to get off the ground
A boy-meets-girl story (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), the nervous breakdown of a zealous jazz musician (Whiplash), a Hollywood musical (La La Land), and now a period film about Neil Armstrong’s journey to becoming the first man of the moon – there’s no predicting what project director Damien Chazelle will choose next. What connects his filmography is the human endeavour for progress; for always reaching a hand out just a little further. With its plot, First Man is the most obvious of Chazelle’s films that wrestles with man’s impatience for more.
Based on a biography of the same name (and the only one that Armstrong gave his blessing to), First Man is set during the ten years leading up to 20 July 1969, the day that changed the world. We meet the Armstrongs: Neil (Ryan Gosling), his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and their two sons, just as the family’s youngest child, Karen, dies from a brain tumour. While Neil throws himself into his astronaut training with NASA to cope with his grief, his marriage to the long-suffering Janet begins to break down. Played with quiet determination by Gosling, Neil is portrayed as a man more interested in looking at the stars than his home life. Foy does her best with what she’s given, her main role being to worry about her husband and run after her sons. While Neil travels to the moon and changes human history to deal with his grief, we never get any insight into Janet’s emotional turmoil beyond a stressed marriage. Janet is tied down to the domestic while her husband, literally, shoots for the stars.
Much of the film takes places in spaceships. Unlike his last film La La Land, Chazelle isn’t interested in a glossy finish. Instead we see every nut and bolt of the flimsy craft. Gritty hand-held shots are nausea-inducing as the audience is given the same limited visuals as the astronauts. It’s a claustrophobic film until we reach the moon where wide panning shots replace shaky cam. The sequences on the moon are truly stunning as both Neil and the film are finally allowed to breathe.
Stripping back the period detail and space setting, at its core First Man is the story of a man unable to cope with grief. On the moon, Neil is finally able to let go of his daughter – taken literally, as he drops Karen’s bracelet into a crater. It’s a romantic portrayal of space exploration. While there’s a nod to the historical context of the time – the civil rights movement and the nationwide protests against the millions of dollars and lives being sacrificed to get to the moon – Chazelle is obviously more interested in the individual.
First Man is a technically accomplished story of how far one man will go to avoid handling his emotions, dressed up as the story of mankind’s mission to the moon. There’s potential here to dig into issues of masculinity, domesticity and nationality, however Chazelle instead chooses a romanticised quest of man’s endeavour for more. While the moon sequences are heart-stopping, the use of handheld is uninspired. Musical cues from composer Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s long-time musical contributor, offer little more than emotional manipulation. With solid performances and a heavy grit to the cinematography, it’s a shame First Man never gets off the ground.
First Man had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival and is released in the UK on 12 Oct by Universal. For more of our TIFF coverage, head to theskinny.co.uk/festivals/international-festivals
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