As of 2018, he is still only thirty-three. Yes, thirty-three. Following on the heels of bite-your-nails-until-they-are-gone jazz schooler, Whiplash, fingernails-back-and-clicking musical roma-gedy La La Land, directing wunderkid Damien Chazelle pairs once again with the latter’s Ryan Gosling for a detailed delve into the space race in First Man.
Based on James R Hansen’s celebrated book ‘First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong’ and adapted by Spotlight writer Josh Singer, First Man pieces together Armstrong’s tribulations leading up to – and including – that legendary moon landing in 1969. To say that this is a warts n’ all expose on the life of a man imprinted into the annals of history would be a cheeky fib. The main preoccupation of this narrative is a professional CV brought to life with little detours into the personal.
He was something of a studious, stoic and dependable sort. A man who baked his emotions inwardly. A man who, after losing his daughter, struggled to park his pain in order to forge ahead in his pugnacious plight to become an astronaut. His wife, Janet (Claire Foy), was a traditional housewife: a homebody hungry for the simple life, and also a supportive rock buckled up for the ride. Those looking out for Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) will note that he is a bit-player in this retelling of events. A bit-player painted as something of an insensitive irritant too.
First Man is intent on offering a blow-by-blow account of every screwed bolt and panel fixed towards the Apollo mission. It nods its head towards Soviet pressure and Cold War politics, which bangs on in the background like some sort of pernicious international heavyweight contest (sans trash talk, of course). Performance-wise, Gosling is a great vessel for the enigma of Armstrong, and whilst Claire Foy is generating buzz for her performance, her input is disappointingly limited. It is a portrayal that deserves more diegetic meat but nevertheless presents further evidence of her protean abilities.
Linus Sandgren’s cinematography has the appearance of archive footage; a bit like a time capsule, and one that certainly offers little evidence of its 21st century construction. A highly saturated, sepia-tinged odyssey, this is in stark contrast to the technicolour razzle dazzle of La La Land, in which he also worked with Chazelle.
There are splashes of spine-tingling tension, heartfelt domesticity and personal struggle all wrestling within this ambling film. These moments hit all the right notes. It is just that there is also the sort of baggy excesses that you’d normally see on the weight scales after a gluttonous festive season; with extended sequences recreating specific training endeavours that feel unnecessarily elongated when more personal material would have enhanced the experience.
When Neil Armstrong uttered his iconic phrase about small steps and giant leaps he articulated the micro and the macro simultaneously. In a far more modest manner – and in filmmaking terms – Damien Chazelle has managed to do similar by documenting the wider accomplishment of Armstrong and the NASA team whilst also alluding to the personal, individual and collective sacrifices made to achieve the impossible dream.
Moon-umental First Man ain’t. Occasionally and fleetingly stunning, it is. Better than good, but good not great. Much like the Apollo journey itself, and maybe poetically so, this is a kinetic, bumpy ride that succeeds in its mission in spite of the obstacles in its way.