Following the success of Whiplash and becoming the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar ever for La La Land, whatever Damien Chazelle chose to make next always had a lot to live up to. First Man, a biopic of Neil Armstrong which chronicles America’s race to lunar exploration, is perhaps an unexpected departure for a director whose preoccupation with jazz dominated his prior directorial work.
But just as Whiplash transformed music practice into a tension-laced drama, so Chazelle transforms the historical, epic Apollo 11 mission in a surprising direction, creating an intricate character study that simultaneously functions as sensitive exploration of grief as well as a gripping history lesson.
First Man highlights the tense dichotomy between an astronaut’s life-threatening work-life and the need to foster a stable home-life. Armstrong, played with textbook emotive stoicism by Ryan Gosling, is clearly marked by a repression of emotions, whether in front of his wife, his friends, or journalists. In a fantastic scene at the kitchen table before he embarks on Apollo 11’s fateful mission, when saying what could be a final goodbye to his children, Armstrong recycles dialogue from an earlier press conference – “we have every intention of returning safely” – as if he’s unable to express anything beyond the rational demands of his job.
We soon discover that Armstrong’s dedication to his work is fuelled by his desperate attempts to escape the grief surrounding the loss of his daughter, whose untimely death is explored early in the film. It’s a neat dramatic conceit which allows the audience to get underneath the simplified myth of the iconic ‘Armstrong name’ and all of its heroic associations.
Chazelle’s masterful cinematography speaks volumes where Armstrong remains mute. There is, for instance, the visual theme of touch: flashbacks of feeling his daughter’s hair contrast with close ups of hands on levers controlling rickety spacecraft. His longing for, yet withdrawal from, human contact is continually reaffirmed through visual motifs which never fail to respect the intelligence of the viewer.
The film is not without its issues; the pacing drags unnecessarily in some scenes, interrupting the film’s overall momentum, and although he’s portrayed sympathetically, Armstrong’s characterisation leans dangerously towards the clichéd. The emotionally repressed male lead who somehow takes ‘one giant leap for humankind’ at the expense of his own mentality and loved ones is a role we’ve seen Gosling perform before in Drive or Blade Runner 2049.
Although Gosling is brilliant, Claire Foy’s performance is truly stunning as she depicts the anxiety and anger of his wife Janet who, whilst facing the possibility of widowhood, has to continue her everyday duties as a wife and mother.
The recent controversy Chazelle faced for not depicting the placing of the American flag on the moon blatantly ignores that such nationalistic themes were not the film’s focus. Rather, the single inclusion of the American flag, raised by Armstrong’s son at home, reveals such patriotism as hollow, overshadowed by the truly risky nature of the mission and the human cost it took to get Armstrong there at all.
Like a good book, First Man sticks with you, its resonance settling deeper long after you’ve watched it. I admit that I could be subjecting it to unfair levels of criticism, as part of me feels disappointed that it isn’t another Whiplash. But in its own right, it is an undeniably well-crafted film. It may not be the lightest choice if you’re sick with fresher’s flu, but I’d definitely recommend it.