They’re a precocious pair, Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz. Both under forty and each an Oscar winner, the duo reunite after the ebullient La La Land to produce First Man, a more demure, yet still rip roaring, success. An adaptation of James R. Hansen’s Life of Neil Armstrong – by fellow Academy winner Josh Singer no less – the film has the visual mastery of Gravity but adds a welcome familial resonance.
As though there were ever any doubt that it would, First Man instantly feels like the definitive dramatic recount of Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing. Even with camerawork designed to heighten claustrophobic intensity, a sense of grandiosity pervades Chazelle’s film. Tonally, this is established by a partial negation of the US patriotism that drove the mission, in favour of its global implications for humankind – Soviet mentions are limited here and no stars and stripes find themselves wedged into the moon’s surface – but it is the production aesthetic itself that elevates the film’s visceral quality.
With the aid of intelligently captured, point-of-view shots, not to mention the use of LED screens over computer generated imagery, Chazelle implants his audience in the heart of the action and allows it to breath with sensory realism. Indeed, life-size models of the space crafts were constructed for the production, which boasts an impressive adherence to period accuracy. When the moon landing finally occurs – it takes a while: First Man is perhaps a little too comprehensive for its own good – it is like the audience are permitted to share a verisimilitude experience of that small step for man.
Long before this point in its story, the film opens in 1961, with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) careering a hundred and forty thousand feet back to terra firma, after a brief jaunt beyond the ozone. It wasn’t the smoothest ride in the NASA book though: ‘he’s a good engineer,’ says Armstrong’s superior, ‘but he’s distracted.’ Armstrong’s albatross is his daughter, who will soon die of cancer, aged just three. Chazelle exposes such a loss as a staple driving force for a man whose exterior reserve perhaps disguised the agonising hurt within.
Claire Foy is outstanding as Janet Armstrong, channelling a degree of agency that is usually exempt from the stay-at-home wife. In this context, of course, stay-at-home has particularly unique connotation. Late in the film, she will demand that Neil inform his children that he may never return and there is bitter comedy in the way he approaches the conversation like-for-like as he did the Apollo 11 press conference: ‘Are there any other questions?’.
Frequent Nolan collaborator Nathan Crowley leads a splendid design team, giving La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren material aplenty to develop an exquisite, out of this world picture. It is an inspired move that sees First Man shift from 16mm film to 65mm, via 35mm, as the story, and time therein, progresses. The impressive effect lends a cinecam quality to early Earth scenes and majestic clarity to the moon-based finale. Unsurprisingly, there is a visual likeness in the film’s first half to Battle of the Sexes – similar period, both Sandgren.
Clint Eastwood was at one time attached to the project, which has Steven Spielberg as its executive producer, and it is easy to imagine the sturdy, bankable biopic that he would have conceived. Befitting the enormous ambition of the tale being told here, Chazelle proves to be a much braver choice for the directorial seat. His vision of events is shot to be intense, dynamic and unquestionably rooted on Earth. Chazelle looked to war and submarine films for inspiration, prior to exploring the wealth of space cinema, and it pays dividends.
Armstrong’s first footprint is a brilliantly conceived image, whilst there are nods on Earth to the waning public interest in the – hugely expensive – space race and the human cost of such ambition. If the death of one major character is a touch fumbled, it’s a rare misstep in a film that plays well with the clashing of commitment and loss: ‘We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there’. Chazelle may not have written this one but it finds him still thematically wrestling with the price of success.