“…Chazelle’s footage of these brave pioneers hurtling into space in what amounted back then to glorified reinforced tin cans, is an extraordinarily tense experience.” – Wayward Wolf.
It seems that director Damien Chazelle has prioritised realism over glossy sentiment in First Man, his ambitious take on the latter stages of the Great Space Race; more particularly, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon.
The film observes Armstrong and his family in the years preceding this monumental event; a time in which Neil’s single-minded dedication to the cause and an ability to remain focused in the face of innumerable setbacks and personal tragedies, saw him ultimately Captain Nasa’s historic space mission, himself.
Whilst First Man will doubtless appeal to the technologically minded engineers and rocket scientists amongst us, it is a film equally concerned with people; with life and relationships, family and friends.
Claire Foy is cast as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. She portrays a ‘typical mid-century American woman’. A home-maker. Bar the support and friendship of her fellow housewives, Janet frequently finds herself alone, yet she expertly keeps the home fires burning, performing the essential ‘life’ and family functions in her husband’s frequent absences.
But even when he is around, there is a level of detachment about Armstrong’s attitude to family life. Chazelle’s film seems to pin his rather aloof nature upon the family’s loss of their young daughter to illness at a very early age. This is something that Neil seems never to have fully recovered from and has rendered him unable (or unwilling?) to display the same levels of affection and devotion to his two remaining sons.
Ryan Gosling’s performance is the kind of brooding portrayal that we have come to expect from the two-time Oscar-nominated Hollywood heart-throb although this is not the sort of performance of repressed potentially explosive anger that we have witnessed in Nicholas Winding Refn movies, for example – think Drive or Only God Forgives – but of a calm, emotionally disengaged man, for whom the ability to express genuine emotion is in fact something akin to rocket science.
Whilst the family friction and tension is an engaging enough side story in itself, it largely plays second fiddle here to Chazelle’s brilliantly realised scenes of space exploration. From the gruelling astronaut preparation right through to the realisation of national and personal dreams, Chazelle’s footage of these brave pioneers hurtling into space in what amounted back then to glorified reinforced tin cans, is an extraordinarily tense experience. No brightly coloured tight nylon-clad space explorers being warp-sped into far off galaxies here, just a noisy, tooth-rattlingly disorientating, and overwhelmingly claustrophobic experience for all concerned.
It’s truly mesmerising and quite frankly terrifying stuff.
Although IMAX 70mm film is used for the moon landing footage itself – to gain maximum cinematic effect – the bulk of the film is shot on a combination of 16mm and 35mm film. Such a tactic sees Chazelle’s film adopt a sort of soft grainy finish which seems in keeping with its 1960’s feel and setting. That said, the direction is evidently very current with frequent use of jerky handheld camera techniques even during relatively calm scenes concerning simple domestic matters. Whilst in isolation this could be deemed a little unnecessary, within the context of the film as a whole, it is not nearly as jarring as it might have been.
The excellent Justin Hurwitz – he that would appear to be fast becoming what John Williams is/was to Steven Spielberg – once again teams up with Damien Chazelle to provide a subtly understated yet very beautiful theremin and harp-led score, lending the film an at times magical, timeless feel.
And talking of Spielberg, it would be interesting to know exactly what the full extent of his responsibilities were in his role as Executive Producer on this project. It’s undeniable that there’s definitely something of a Spielbergian ‘feel’ to this piece, if such a thing exists?
Considering the nature of Chazelle’s projects prior to this – the blistering Whiplash and the ever-so-enchanting La La Land – a certain degree of criticism from some quarters has been levelled at the director for both his choice of topic and his rather more ‘considered’ approach to film making this time around.
Far from being a regressive move though for this still remarkably young and prodigious talent, if anything, First Man should be considered one great step for Chazelle’s career, further cementing his well-earned place amongst Hollywood’s very biggest hitters.