First Man is a Chazellian study of obsession that is keen to understand the inner workings of Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is caught between his own personal dilemmas and the international space race during this sombre re-telling of the 1969 moon landing. Damien Chazelle’s intimate biopic puts American patriotism to one side as we discover the man behind the machine.
Unlike most space movies, suspense is not a fundamental part of First Man. Audiences are fully aware of how the story goes down, therefore Chazelle does not linger on the parts we know. Instead, the film is concerned with Armstrong’s desire to escape after the death of his daughter, whilst dealing with the pressures and threats that come with his career. The moon landing is viewed through a lens of bereavement and grief that maintains its attention on Neil Armstrong, whilst exploring the mortal costs of the Gemini and Apollo NASA missions.
The camera is often positioned within Gosling’s eyeline, thus allowing for an immersive view of the nauseating and terrifying aspects of space travel. Although this is difficult to for our eyes to adjust to at first, we are constantly reminded of the presence of danger during an era where vital technology was much more limited than today. A flicker of peril in the eyes of a man being strapped into a cosmic tin can, as engineers tinker with swiss army knives to at the last minute, accentuates the bravery of the first Apollo astronauts. Linus Sandgren’s switch between 35mm, for industrialised NASA scenes, and 65mm, for silent moonscapes, creates a contrast between the pursuit and the triumph. Despite the costs, Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon has a silver lining.
“Audiences are fully aware of how the story goes down, therefore Chazelle does not linger on the parts we know”
Gosling’s Armstrong is trapped between inner and outer space. His Keatonesque style reigns in all emotion, transferring Armstrong’s pain and anger into a tightly balled fist. Gosling’s internal performance fits the image of a man oppressed by grief, as he becomes increasingly withdrawn throughout film- to the point where he is forced to sit down and explain to his children that he may not come home. Gosling’s portrayal strikes a note empathy whilst demonstrating that Neil Armstrong was haunted yet motivated by death. Through this performance, we never lose sight of the man who landed on the moon, as the crushing weight of grief and survivor’s guilt pulls Armstrong, like gravity, back down to Earth. The achievement that defined his life becomes even more remarkable.
The paranoid wife, neglected during her husband’s pursuit of a greater cause, is easily a character cliché. However, Josh Singer’s script does not write Janet Armstrong as the nagging wife proved wrong by her husband’s ambition. Claire Foy brings a performance that creates a human connection between Neil’s responsibilities on Earth and in Space. Not only does she become a reminder of the stakes at risk (“You’re just a bunch of boys – you don’t have anything under control!”) she is a catalyst driving out the emotion that Gosling keeps to his chest. Foy’s performance is similar to Felicity Jones’ character in The Theory of Everything, as she brings Neil’s two worlds together, translating his inner pain whilst making sure that he does not disregard the possible consequences that his actions may have. Gosling may be the action hero, but Foy is the star.
Justin Hurwitz’s score compliments the film’s focus on longing and loss. The use of a wailing theremin, an instrument beloved by Armstrong, adds a personal note to the film whilst setting it up amongst the greats of the sci-fi genre. First Man is not a glamorous tale of space exploration, but a detailed tale of grief that really tugged on my heart strings.