Is “First Man” an out-of-this-world biopic or an Apollo mission atrocity?
“First Man” is the true story of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling), the first man to walk on the Moon, and follows him from his beginnings as a NASA test pilot right through to his lunar landing in 1969. It’s an intimate, personal story of the man behind the helmet, focussing on his life at home and his work at NASA, and his famously modest and quiet personality.
“First Man” is the third major picture from director Damien Chazelle, and his previous 2 films — 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2016’s “La La Land” — are amongst my favourites of all time. I was understandably excited, then, when I heard Chazelle’s latest film would be a biopic of a hero of mine, Neil Armstrong, but also apprehensive; “Whiplash” and “La La Land” were both completely original scripts, with fast-paced narratives featuring emotive and intense characters, all fuelled by jazz music. How did Chazelle cope then, adapting a story known to almost all, about a calm and level-headed astronaut, visiting a place where you can’t even hear a breath, let alone jazz music!
I must say, if you’re someone who suffers from motion sickness, this film probably isn’t for you — all the shots in the film gives the appearance of being handheld, and this affect is brought to the maximum when the film cuts to scenes inside the cockpit. The opening is a brilliant example of this as it follows Armstrong on a test flight in the early 60s. At points, it’s almost impossible to work out what’s occurring on screen as the camera shakes with the movement of the plane, and the lighting is subtle and constantly moving, only adding to the intensity and drama of the scenes. Chazelle also utilises a technique he used a lot to good effect in “Whiplash”, focussing on the details of sets to convey the story, such as an altimeter clicking up and down, or an attitude indicator rolling from side-to-side. This, coupled with the shaking camera and also shots almost from the perspective of Armstrong himself, really immerses the viewer in the scene and I couldn’t help but hold my breath in some scenes on-board.
The intimacy of these scenes are only added to by Ryan Gosling’s strong performance as Armstrong. He does well to capture the subtlety of the astronaut’s character, his quiet, subdued and somewhat stern personality, but also there are moments of real emotion in his performance. It was Claire Foy’s performance as Janet Armstrong that was really powerful, though, and she really emphasised the fear but pride felt by the astronauts’ wives back home.
This film does have some problems, however, namely it’s third act. The final set-piece, depicting the climactic launch of the Saturn V rocket that took Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), featured some pretty below-par CGI, and for a film that has been without music for the majority of the run-time, it is only for this scene that a generic score is introduced and it almost disconnects the audience, especially after the intense, near-silent scenes in the cockpit before.
Overall, “First Man” is an intimate story about a man whom many know little about, featuring some really excellent scenes within the cockpit. It’s stripped back storytelling at it’s best, and so earns a nine-out-of-ten.
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