Damien Chazelle trades in the arts for the sciences with First Man, focusing in on Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in this handsome, technically astonishing awards contender. It’s a surprising choice for the Whiplash and La La Land director, moving from pacy musical drama into the realm of biopic, scripted by The Post writer Josh Singer rather than Chazelle himself.
For the most part, this change is handled extremely well, and Chazelle gets to retain one of his favourite themes: obsession. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was near fanatical in his devotion to his impossible mission, and Gosling nails the way this commitment often overwhelmed his emotions. Claire Foy is on equally good form as Janet Armstrong, generally more held together than the volatile Neil, but capable of fearsome fury.
If you’ve seen an Oscar-friendly biopic before, there’s not much in First Man that will surprise you, but with strong character work backed by an ensemble of solid performances, that doesn’t end up detracting from the experience. Knowing that Armstrong and his crew make it to the moon doesn’t make their flights less thrilling or their failures less frustrating. Singer’s script does place the film in its Cold War context, but smartly avoids jingoism.
The flights themselves are spectacular, from a thrumming, intense low-orbit mission in 1961 to the fateful Apollo 11 landing itself. Documentary-style camerawork and superlative sound design immerse you in the shuddering cockpits, death never more than one minor mistake away.
At a time when the governments of the world feel more insular and backward-looking than ever, it’s important to be reminded what humankind can achieve when we expand our horizons. First Man may not quite be on a par with Chazelle’s previous two masterpieces, but it’s still a remarkably well-executed look at an inspiring slice of history.
CAST: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Ciarán Hinds, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler
DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle
WRITERS: Josh Singer (screenplay), James R. Hansen (based on the book by)
SYNOPSIS: A look at the life of the astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.