Glimpsed as the camera swoops around Mission Control is a room filled with journalists, politicians and businessmen. Spilt only by a glass window, they watch thinking they know what NASA is doing when they really have no idea.
With First Man, his biopic of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), director Damien Chazelle presents us, the audience, the same way. We think we know all there is to know about Armstrong – he’s the first man on the moon – and, thanks to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, we think we know how an astronaut movie plays out, particularly this story. In blistering fashion, Chazelle proves we’re clueless.
Chazelle has made his mark by presenting old-fashioned Hollywood fables with modern filmmaking techniques. First Man is no different as Chazelle, along with writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), has fun subverting astronaut movie cliches. There is the opening adrenaline-fuelled test flight. There’s the concerned wife. First Man refuses to end these scenes traditionally. The test flight is successful and Janet Armstrong’s (Claire Foy) concern is manifested in a measured argument.
“Patty doesn’t have a husband. Those boys don’t have a father,” Janet spits at Neil as he packs for the Apollo 11 mission. This quiet, matter-of-fact statement is the closest Foy comes to melodramatic screaming as she focuses on how this journey into the unknown could tear their family apart. She isn’t concerned about Neil’s life, but how his death will hurt her and her sons.When you’re making mankind’s giant leap, death is to be expected, and Chazelle and Singer give every death thematic weight. As the astronauts lived near or even next door to one another, the film must address the toll their sacrifices took on Armstrong; so to some extent the deaths of Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (a solid Jason Clarke) do propel the plot, but the director is more concerned with showing how death and grief impacted the Armstrong family instead of his drive to land on the moon.
Opening with the death of his daughter Karen, First Man is a family drama about grief. Janet wants to protect. Neil wants to flee. Only the empty blackness of the moon makes Neil feel complete. Neil and Janet make First Man a meditative depiction of loss and grief. Chazelle’s first epic film is his most intimate.
None of this would work without Gosling and Foy. Armstrong isn’t talkative and Gosling says a lot with little. Foy gets the big moments, chastising the NASA scientists as “just boys”, and makes a limited character the heart of the movie. Both performances feel lived in instead of well-studied impressions, and they’re the type of unshowy performances overlooked by the Oscars. It’s a shame First Man has been shut out this awards season.
Because for all his plaudits so far – this is only Chazelle’s fourth film – First Man is his most accomplished feature. Alongside his Director of Photography Linus Sandgren, he changes the visual language of the astronaut movie with POV shots that create high levels of intensity. The Gemini 8 launch is filmed entirely from inside the capsule, the flashing lights and glimpses of flames through the capsule window spark an unease and a seed of doubt – somehow Chazelle makes you think Armstrong might not make it.
Once Armstrong returns from the moon, he is placed in quarantine. Separated by a piece of glass, he reconnects with Janet. Everybody thinks they know what Armstrong went through to land on the moon, but in the end, only a select few know how it feels. Most of us will never know.
First Man is out now on Digital, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD via Universal Pictures Home Entertainment