Release: 18th February 2019
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
Oscar®-winning director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling reteam for the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral, intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective and based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film explores the triumphs and the cost on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues, and the nation itself for one of the most dangerous missions in history.
Damien Chazelle was riding high off the back of the glitzy fever dream of La La Land; a critical darling, the talk of the town, a film so beloved that Warren Beaty tried to give it an Oscar even when it hadn’t won. He could do anything he wanted; and he did. It just wasn’t what people expected. It may not have dance numbers or finger bleeding drum solos, but First Man seems like a logical and rewarding next step from the man who makes films feel like jazz.
If Whiplash was big band and La La Land was swing, then First Man is slow jazz; yet there is not a single saxophone or trumpet in it. Everything First Man stands for is the lonely, swaying soulfulness of Miles Davis and Kenny G. This is Taxi Driver in space. First Man’s version of Neil Armstrong is more Travis Bickle than he is Mark Watney. He is a loner, a weirdo, a man surrounded by life but encased in emotional isolation. For all the Rockstar connotations America has assigned to those who boldly go, Chazelle wants us to see the kind of person it takes to abandon a lifetime on Earth for a moment on the moon.
Josh Singer’s screenplay chooses to focus on the death of Neil and Janet’s young daughter Karen as a catalyst for many of Neil’s motivations. There is an allusion to the idea that is it grief and not a kerosene-liquid oxygen mix that propelled Armstrong to the moon. Figuratively speaking, of course. Her ghost hangs over the movie; made manifest in domestic totems such as a swing bathed in moonlight or a bracelet kept hidden in a drawer. It’s a fact that rattles him in the interview for his job, and a focus for him when he finally arrives at his lunar destination. Death is a key theme throughout and beyond that of Karen. It is a constant. So, to say that First Man is about exactly that – man not myth – would potentially be a reason why so many have found fault in it. This is an undoing of one of America’s great cultural icons; or at least a view of a pivotal time with the rose-tinted glasses removed.
Then there is the other side of First Man, the side that pays homage to the great and the courageous. Significant detail is paid to the day-to-day duties; showing the mundane (crunching numbers) to the insane (flying jets above the Earth’s atmosphere). There are even moments where Armstrong and his colleagues spend a morning spinning at 4gs and an afternoon doing advance chemistry; all garnished with beautiful set design and a vintage cinematography courtesy of Linus Sandgren. Chazelle wants to juxtapose a domesticated version of NASA, with that of the other domestic scene which Armstrong is so absent from. It is a bugbear that Clare Foy’s Janet is lacking from the film, but this may have been a conscious choice, in that she is as distant from Neil as the moon itself. Is Chazelle saying that one must choose a destination in life, but in order to reach that, you must propel yourself away from the other? Another unfortunate offshoot of this is that as the film develops, Neil becomes more like a savant with Asperger’s than a determined astronaut.
The 3rd act of First Man is quite literally out of this world. Chazelle made the choice to go from 16mm to IMAX format for the moon landing footage, and it was a stroke of genius. A breathtaking POV shot spits us from the confines of a lunar lander to the grey deserts of the moon; helping to go some way to feeling just a smidge of the rush Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin must have experienced. There are plenty of small emotional scenes throughout First Man, but the most resonant are those where Armstrong finally achieves everything he intended, only to realise that the one thing he cannot stop thinking about are his family back on Earth. And here is the central contradiction at the heart of First Man. We chase things because we think we need them, then when they arrive, we realise something else entirely is now more important. Ultimately this is what has had humankind chasing rainbows since the dawn of man. And when something becomes attainable it redefines perspective; helping us pinpoint the next meaningful pursuit. The first small step for man might have been 240 thousand miles in the sky, but the giant leap is yet to come, because mankind still has a long way to go.
Film Grade: A-
The film comes with a lot of small yet in-depth features. The deleted scenes include a house fire, while the film’s making of is broken down in to a variety of smaller docs. Recreating the Moon Landing and Putting You In The Seat are the most technically interesting features, while Giant Leap in One Small Step is a meaningful ode to Neil Armstrong; which reinforces the sense that Chazelle made this film out of respect, not to rattle any cages.
Special Features Grade: B
Frustratingly slow at times, but an otherwise rewarding and heartfelt piece of poetry.