Damien Chazelle, Oscar winning director of La La Land is back. Ditching the songs in favour of grand practical effects, First Man tells the inspirational story of how NASA managed to land a man on the Moon, and how that affected Neil Armstrong’s wife and family back home.
His second collaboration with Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling plays the titular legend in his usual calm and refrained style. Claire Foy is Armstrong’s wife Janet, and it is interesting to see the stark contrast between his space exploration and her tired, domestic life. If there is one quarrel I had with the film, it’s that Janet’s part was underwritten, and though it’s ultimately a story about Neil landing on the Moon, I did feel there could have been more for her to do. Armstrong was a famously reserved man, and though we all want to see the Moon landing, it’s equally fascinating to learn about his secretive personal life.
After suffering a family tragedy, Neil begins a nine-year journey at NASA, where we see the major events in his life pass through like chapters in a book. Chazelle has a really great grasp on emotional storytelling, and so ensures the narrative never gets lost in the massive spectacle.
The visual style of this film is utterly gorgeous. Shot on film cameras, the cinematography is rich in grainy colour. The camerawork, while appearing incredibly shaky at times, makes the film play more like a documentary than a grand blockbuster, and this really worked in telling the story. Accompanying that is also some phenomenal sound design. The creaking bending metal of the tin-pot spaceships, the deep sub-bass sounds of a launch and the vast silence of space all recreate Armstrong’s journey in an incredibly raw and visceral way.
Wherever possible, practical effects have been used to recreate the huge launces and space explorations. This choice was a great one, and it’s clear that Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film had a large influence on the space sequences. What is really great, however, is that instead of showing the rockets taking off during the launches, it actually stays inside the capsules for most of the time, as we see how our human characters are reacting to it. Similar to Dunkirk’s success last year, the big strength of this film is that through all the huge effects, it’s the story and emotions that are most powerful.
Chazelle’s returning composer Justin Hurwitz has also created another stunning original score. After the jazzy nature of his first two scores, this one sees a change. The music is still simplistic, but far darker. His use of electronic elements and Theremins really help portray the mood and the influence of 2001’s ‘The Blue Danube’ cannot be understated as Hurwitz creates his own ‘Docking Waltz’ to show the mysterious beauty of the space machines.
Despite minor script and length issues, First Man is still a monumental achievement. It’s use of practical effects and stunning sound design brilliantly recreate the launches from the astronaut’s perspective, giving the audience a human insight into Mans most inspirational story of endurance and conquest. It shows the tragedy, heartbreak and horrors everyone endured during these years, but with such an emotionally powerful imminent, you can’t help but watch the narrative in awe as they get ever closer to that lunar object in the sky.