‘First Man’ may surprise many; initial marketing suggests a recap of the space race.
Watching the trailer, one may think they know how this story ends and wonder, 'do I need to see a retelling of it? Is this just another post-modern take on an American hero where we deconstruct rather than celebrate them?' Well yes and yes, it’s a complicated and beautiful film with an appeal difficult to break down into a 90 second trailer.
This is first and foremost a character study of a man through a decade of his career and life. Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong as beyond reserved. Careful with his words he is unafraid of verbal confrontation in the workplace but he is barely able to carry out a conversation at dinner with the family. Is this a way of dealing with grief? Is this a reflection of masculine ideals in the 1960s? The other men around him seem able to express themselves better, and for the most part they’re all former military men and combat veterans, the same generation and experiences of Neil himself. Is there something more in the way he struggles to say things, linked to his laser focus and engineering mind? Ryan and the movie leave it open to interpretation but it is through Neil’s quietness we see more clearly those around him and how the cost of the space race has a larger impact to a marriage, a family and this small community hunkered down in a village trying to get a man to a piece of rock 385,000 kilometres away.
If Ryan Gosling is subtle and affecting, Claire Foy more than matches him in another performance that reveals more through body language than dialogue. This is not the oft-seen wife role where she complains about the dangerous nature of her husband’s work and isn’t given much else to do, the movie’s marketing aside. Instead, Claire shows how clearly Janet Armstrong’s support and understanding of the insular Neil was crucial to him having any kind of life. She kept her sons on track, helped grievers long after funerals and refused to be shown anything less than the respect she deserved.
Technically ‘First Man’ is a marvel, not just with colour grading to match the look of news footage of the time or its slavish devotion to period detail. Director Damien Chazelle goes for a naturalistic look for the most part with handheld camera work featuring throughout. In one of the best set pieces of the year, the impressive sound design in the opening sequence makes you literally feel the aluminium and screws rattling in the X-15. Later efforts don’t disappoint either, effective for staying in real time and focusing on the characters rather than quick cut editing and shaky cam. No need to play up the aesthetics when depicting a spacecraft going into a tailspin and hurtling towards earth. Music only accompanies the final action sequence where composer Justin Hurwitz both increases tension but also hints at elation.
No great thing is done by one great individual alone. ‘First Man’ reveals this by focusing on one individual achieving something great. What drove him and those around him to do the impossible? Up in the heavens, his home planet the size of his thumb and in quiet solitude, the film offers one possible answer with an action taken by Neil Armstrong. Yet the film also reminds that it is the journey not the destination that matters. This is one of the year’s best.