Damien Chazelle breaks the mould of his jazz trilogy (Guy & Madeline On A Park Bench, Whiplash, La La Land) with poignant Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, writes Natalie Stendall.
With a script penned by Oscar winner Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), First Man successfully massages the story of the first man on the moon into a meditation on loss, marriage and family. Armstrong’s journey is a personal one and, by the time we reach the moon landing, the complex emotional nature of the mission - both selfish and altruistic - has been sensitively explored.
On the surface, however, First Man remains a visceral and immersive cinematic experience and its depiction of space flight feels genuinely raw.
Chazelle proves himself here as a versatile and skilful storyteller, keeping us on the inside of the cabin in the often disorienting perspective of its crew.
The enclosed spaces, vibrating metal and rattling bolts sit in direct contrast with the heavily stylised, clinical and futuristic version of space we regularly experience on the big screen. And, when Chazelle dares to echo the classical score and ballet like visuals of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he quickly interrupts the tranquility with such ferocious shaking that it feels as though the cabin might be ripped apart. Locked inside these claustrophobic spaces, Chazelle’s immersive storytelling seems designed not to impress upon us the spectacular but the personal.
The relatively primitive nature of 1960s space exploration and the potential dangers of its experimental missions underline the bravery of the astronauts but also something deeper and more intricate.
As Armstrong, Ryan Gosling is fascinatingly reticent and reserved about its risks but a suggestion of his anxieties flutters beneath the surface. Terse and fractious conversations with his resilient wife Janet (an impressive Claire Foy) inevitably result.
The minutiae of marriage, friendship and teamwork provide the solid, lifelike foundations to this biopic. And, to his credit, Chazelle turns away from the schmaltzy patriotism of the space race to capture the otherworldliness of the moon itself. Chillingly silent and static, the moon becomes an immensely personal space for Armstrong. Chazelle’s climactic sequence is beautiful, poetic and fittingly intimate.