First Man

Is an intimate account of how far one man went for the rest of mankind.

The year 2019 will mark 50 years since an American astronaut landed and walked on the moon. In Hollywood fashion, it’s only fair that a film celebrates this event as a glorious and patriotic anniversary. First Man is not that film. Neither is it a full-fledged biopic as the title seems to suggest.

If Whiplash, followed by La La Land were astounding films about the burning desire to go above and beyond the ordinary, returning director Damien Chazelle put’s everything he’s got into making First Man a poignant yet important story on what is probably the single most dangerous mission in the history of mankind. Yet until now, it hasn’t seemed that way because junior school history books barely talked about the event without earmarking it as a historic date. Which is why Chazelle, along with scriptwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight and The Post) is audaciously tasked with not only gathering every detail that went into the Apollo 11 mission but also the brilliant yet impenetrable psyche of mission commander Neil Armstrong.

Following the development of the space programme through the 1960s, much of Armstrong’s story is told from a first-person perspective. His personal tragedy early in the film along with his real life repute as an introvert sets the tone of the film. There was nothing stopping Universal Pictures, including Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, from throwing in an extra 100 million bucks to make this film an action packed white-knuckle crowd pleaser. Instead, the entire film feels like a modest presentation of one of the most applauded events that contributed towards the modern space age. Through Ryan Gosling’s deadpan eyes, Armstrong is a recluse and never the hero history says he is. In retrospect to the eventual moon landing, the space programme in this film is marred with failure after disastrous failure with funerals of fellow astronauts as the only punctuation. But all through Armstrong’s progression from flight engineer to test pilot to eventually being strapped into a Saturn V Rocket aimed at the moon, we are also shown what he was as an ordinary civilian. His sorrow and self-doubt, coupled with remarkable calm and restraint, escalate into a vicious circle with each setback. Yet caught between the political pressure of the tax payer’s dollar and his personal will to succeed, the film’s most powerful moments are the sacrifices he makes as a father and a husband. Gosling gets this right in equal measure as Armstrong the family man, the astronaut and the icon he would become.

Equally decisive is Armstrong’s wife Janet (The Crown’s Claire Foy) who in two limited but explosive scenes jumps the que for a Supporting Actress nomination. Whether Foy gets it isn’t nearly as important as her conviction in portraying the anguish of a wife whose picture-perfect family is under constant threat by her husband’s employer. This is a highly relatable predicament for millions of home-alone mothers whose waking nightmare is seeing their spouse return in a casket from a job they loved more. Such was the dwindling expectation from the mission that one moving scene even has a NASA representative pen a generalised obituary to the would-be widows of the few remaining astronauts. This courage, sacrifice and tragedy is supplemented by a large assembly of supporting roles whose teamwork and on-screen camaraderie builds a formidable launch pad (no pun intended) for the best and most rewarding segment – the lunar landing.

Both technically and visually, First Man is almost flawless and deserves to be seen on the largest cinema screen available. Just like Armstrong, Chazelle also applies a lot of restraint in not only limiting exposition to a trickle, but also employing just the right amount of visual effects to tell the story. But even the little in this film instantly puts to shame the overuse of lavish visual and sound effects in big sci-fi titles like Gravity or Mission to Mars. Watching a group of suited up astronauts stuffed into a steel bucket held together with nuts and bolts is not only a claustrophobic experience for the viewer, watching that tiny capsule rattle and roll and hurtle at a speed of more than a thousand feet a second can be exhilarating and immersive. That’s more than enough for the billions on Earth who can only dream of taking that flight of fantasy towards another world. First Man does that in a very intimate and down-to-earth way, when everything about this film is about a giant leap from the earth to the moon and beyond.

Rating: ★★★★½

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.