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Released: October 12th 2018 (UK and US)
Length: 141 Minutes
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbot and Ciaran Hinds
July 20th, 1969; the day Apollo 11 successfully placed a man on the moon. Nearly fifty years on from that historical moment, the journey taken by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins remains a watershed moment in human history. The first major film adaptation, First Man, is a capable retelling of Armstrong’s life with only a single misstep.
Based on the official biography by James R. Hansen, First Man charts Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) career in the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) and the impact it had on his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) and family. The film opens with the passing of their daughter Karen, a moment of grief that hangs over the rest of the film. We follow Neil through the NASA program, a gradual progression in which the film alternates back and forth between these two anchor points, building towards the ultimate Apollo 11 mission. There are a few hints of political and historical context delivered by NASA employees but for the most part it’s a faithful adaptation, mostly placing these external events in the background. The pacing moves organically between the two sides and the authenticity is high; there’s a clear sense of progression as Armstrong and his colleagues work towards landing on the moon. The final act feels appropriately weighty as the titular mission comes to fruition, both the story and the technical effects reach their celestial climax. While this build-up does work brilliantly, the film does run into trouble linking the loss of Neil’s daughter to his pursuit of the moon mission; while First Man does give time to character development, the Armstrong family doesn’t feel as close as you’d like them to be. With further depth to the family scenes, there would have been a higher emotional payoff.
A large cast lines the scenes of First Man and while things become a bit unbalanced, everyone performs their roles brilliantly. Armstrong is portrayed by Gosling as mostly understated and nuanced; while grief does weigh him down, it’s the commitment to his role in the space program that spurs him on. Simultaneously Claire Foy is highly emotive as Janet Shearon; throughout the film she mostly suppresses her sadness for her other children but occasionally, she comes into her own when confronting the notion that Neil may not be coming home from his next mission. If anything, Foy should have had more to do when it came to both engaging with the other characters and working to run the family. On the opposite side, we have the various members of NASA whose parts are relatively simple; Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Ciaran Hinds as director Robert R. Gilruth, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, chief of the astronaut office; they all fit the parts well, delivering the more detailed scientific aspects of the production with an enthused determination. They’re certainly on point in the tenser scenarios as well, showing the often-grave concern that went alongside the space missions of the time. There really isn’t a single weak cast member to be found here, even if the side characters rarely hold the spotlight.
For its lower budget of 59 to 70 million dollars, First Man delivers a stirring presentation of outer space and works to combine it with the human drama. The camerawork is extremely intimate on both sides of the narrative; on one hand it conveys the emotions of the characters effortlessly and on the other it draws you into Armstrong’s ventures as a pilot and astronaut. The latter is particularly effective as it places the audience inside the cramped quarters of the rocket; in some of the more desperate moments faced by the astronauts, the violent shaking combined with the rattling tools in the cockpit creates a very harrowing mood. Yet the beauty of the cosmos always rings true in these sequences, with ambient music pieces that highlight the vast emptiness of space. Then you have the contrasting tones back on Earth, marked by a liberal use of blue light from the moon and slower harp music. It’s a slower burn here, designed to draw the viewer into Armstrong’s family life and the ambience created by the omnipresent lighting makes for a great complement to the scenes set in space. Overall, First Man’s superb visuals and sound design create an exquisitely detailed view of outer space while also leveraging its cinematic techniques for effective tone-building.
As a recount of the first moon landing, First Man is impeccably authentic and masterfully produced. As a chronicling of Neil Armstrong’s personal life, it does leave a bit to be desired. With a higher amount of personal drama and additional scenes involving the family, the film could have stood alongside the best in the genre but as it stands, you’ll still get plenty of enjoyment out of this latest biopic.
Rating: 4/5 Stars (Great)