Never in a million years would I have thought Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his multiple Oscar-winning La La Land (2016) happens to be a biographical drama of legendary US astronaut Neil Armstrong. Besides, this is the same director whose previous three features were all musicals including 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, 2014’s Whiplash and the aforementioned 2016 movie.
Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, the story traces back to Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) eight-year journey from his various trial-and-error of pre-launch test beginning in 1961 to the historic Apollo 11 voyage to the Moon in July 1969. The movie also deals with Armstrong’s family life, as he and stay-at-home wife Janet (Claire Foy) coped with the death of their young daughter Karen (Lucy Brooke Stafford) due to terminal cancer.
Movies about space exploration are nothing new, with the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) being among the prime examples.
In First Man, Chazelle could have chosen the easy path by sticking to the tried-and-true formula of a biographical drama. It’s something that most conventional directors would go for. Instead, he offers a fresh perspective on Neil Armstrong’s life at work, detailing his journey as an astronaut on a mission mostly shot either from an intimate or first-person point-of-view.
This is especially evident during the opening sequence itself, as Chazelle shot Gosling up close within the tight space of an X-15 rocket plane flying above the atmosphere and never once he resorted to the usual wide-angle shot typically associated with the flying sequence. It might feel like a radical change of pace but somehow it works very well, complete with the roaring and whooshing sound of the rocket plane speeding up the sky. You can even feel every rattling and bumping noise of nuts, bolts and metal — all meticulously designed to make it as if you are there for the ride. Chazelle employs the same thrilling you-are-there shot for the subsequent trial-and-error pre-launch test sequences, proving that space travel isn’t what you should label as “fun” or “glamorous” but rather an extremely dangerous line of work. A stuff of nightmare that it’s more life-threatening endurance test than your average term of “occupational hazard”.
Then, there’s the final third act — beginning from the Apollo 11 launch to the eventual landing on the surface of the Moon — which is gloriously captured in 70mm IMAX camera with the help of Linus Sandgren, who previously won an Oscar for Best Cinematography in La La Land. Interestingly enough, Chazelle doesn’t just celebrate the US historic moment of succeeding the first manned mission to land on the Moon but also gives Gosling’s Armstrong a sense of emotional closure that feels both achingly beautiful and affecting at the same time.
Which brings us the whole point of this movie — a biopic that focuses more on Armstrong’s inner psyche than resorting to the standard-biopic genre convention as mentioned earlier. Thanks to Josh Singer’s adapted screenplay, this makes First Man all the more unique experience to watch for, both cinematically and emotionally. Even at home, Chazelle shot all the domestic scenes with Claire Foy’s Janet and their two young sons like poetic snapshots of a film straight out from the Terrence Malick playbook — a filmmaking approach just as visually unique as the space launch sequences.
At the heart of this movie is Ryan Gosling, marking his second collaboration with Chazelle following La La Land two years ago. He successfully captured the enigmatic and reserved personality of the famously private Neil Armstrong — a perfectly restrained performance that it would be a crime if Gosling doesn’t make it to the Oscars shortlist in the Best Actor nomination category. Claire Foy surprises me a lot with a stay-at-home wife role that could have easily neglected into a thankless performance under the hands of a lesser director. But Chazelle gives her enough room to shine and Foy succeeds with her commanding performance as Janet.
The rest of the actors deliver equally solid supports, with kudos go to Jason Clarke as Ed White, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton alongside Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin and Patrick Fugit as Elliott See.
First Man is also benefitted from Justin Hurwitz’s versatile score ranging from claustrophobic to soaringly majestic — a set of musical composition that also parts of heart and soul that brings life to the movie.
So, do yourself a favour. Watch this in IMAX cinema if possible, given the fact it was meant to be experienced in such a way. After Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle has done it once again as he creates another cinematic masterpiece of the modern era that bounds to be a talked-about movie come award season.