First Man movie review: Ryan Gosling takes one giant leap towards an Oscar in Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic
Director - Damien Chazelle
Cast - Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll
Rating - 4.5/5
At three films old now — everyone has decided (incorrectly but conveniently) that he made his debut with Whiplash — director Damien Chazelle’s obsession with obsession is taking shape.
His protagonists tend to be driven, gifted, and generally speaking, willing to make drastic sacrifices to aid the single-minded dedication to their craft. This isn’t out of choice, but more out of necessity — there’s the impression that given a generation or two to evolve, they’d find a way around this, too. But right now, they know that they don’t have options. They aim higher than the rest of us, and therefore, achieve more than us. These men — and Chazelle’s protagonists are mostly men; Emma Stone’s character in La La Land was merely an obstacle in Ryan Gosling’s path — aren’t the ideal in any way, but an alternative.
Watch the First Man trailer here
In First Man, Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong is a relic of a bygone era, an America where national pride could be stoked by conceptual victories and not forced wars. Before the millions of people who followed his adventures, he was an ideal American man — buzz cut blonde, wife at home, three kids, white picket fence, a flag fluttering above his door. But behind that very door, he was what can only be described as a Chazelle protagonist, driven by dangerous devotion, emotionally barricaded, and very broken.
In tone, structure and style, First Man is eerily similar to Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden-manhunt masterpiece, Zero Dark Thirty. Besides the obsessive protagonists — Zero Dark Thirty was led by Jessica Chastain — and a couple of common cast members — Jason Clarke plays pioneer astronaut Ed White and Kyle Chandler plays NASA chief Deke Slayton — both films are goal oriented, emotionally barren, musically sparse — odd, for Chazelle — featuring a revolving door of character actor cameos, and a triumphant conclusion — another Chazelle mainstay.
But what the Oscar winner brings to First Man is an unflinching perspective. Threaten me with an hour in zero gravity and I’d still not be able to list more than five shots where the camera is more than a dozen or so feet away from Armstrong. And what we don’t see from his perspective, we live through his experiences — professionally and personally.
First Man begins in 1961, with the first of its many harrowing scenes of space flight. Armstrong’s craft is trapped outside the Earth’s atmosphere, unable to re-enter. Like most of the film, the scene is shot with a jittery, panic-stricken camera; stabbed with extreme close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s face, shrouded behind a bulky helmet, his eyes betraying a mixture of fear, concentration and exhilaration. Crucially, we never leave his side, and until perhaps the film’s astounding final moments, most of First Man’s space scenes are shot from within the crafts, cramping us inside the metal coffins with these brave men. The Earthbound scenes, by contrast, have an almost vintage, 16mm quality, giving First Man the appearance of being the most expensive home movie ever made.
As the years go by, and as the US is consistently beaten by the Soviets in the space race, perspectives and priorities change. What was once seen as an almost romantic adventure — a natural progression of the same sense of exploration that inspired Lewis and Clarke, Magellan and Columbus — had turned into a matter of national pride. America was doing this not because it was easy, but because it was hard, said John F Kennedy in his famous speech, invoked in the film.
But Chazelle’s film is not concerned with outside noise; the film has only one scene in which politicians hint at shutting down the programme because it had stopped making economic sense, and one more of a group of civil rights protesters demonstrating outside a launch facility — essentially the film’s only acknowledgement of the era’s social climate. First Man is as staunch in its purpose as its protagonist, undeterred by exterior forces, as gruffly unsentimental as Gosling’s performance.
And what a performance it is, unhinged in its restraint and filled with moments of great subtlety. Because so much of the film is balanced on Armstrong, his face and his immediate surroundings, even throwaway shots of wobbly screws and flickering lights are filled with meaning. The writer-director duo works well together (we already know that), but they’re so in sync with each other on this film, it’s a sight to behold. Neither loses focus of what the ultimate objective is — showing the real dangers and challenges of space flight in all their gritty realism — and it would have been so easy to fall prey to cliches or the occasional cutaway to mission control, where guffawing men slap each other on the backs and pop champagne. Instead, even Claire Foy’s worrying wife is given a more realistic arc than what we usually see in such films.
Select scenes in First Man have been shot in the IMAX format, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s work with scale models and sound-stages on Interstellar. No other format would have been as immersive in conveying the terror of space flight and the euphoric release of First Man’s final moments. It’s the only time you feel the immense scale of the mission, as the screen explodes and Justin Hurwitz’s minimal score swells, enveloping you with a surge of electricity that the film had methodically been building up to for over two hours.
You know what to do.