First Man isn’t so much a film about landing on the moon as a film about coming to terms with grief, set against the backdrop of the space race. It shares very little DNA with previous space race films, being largely bereft of the heroic thrills found in The Right Stuff, or the nail-biting suspense of Apollo 13. Instead, Whiplash/La La Land director Damien Chazelle forges his own path, making First Man a low-key, kaleidoscopic, meditative and melancholy character study, finally giving Neil Armstrong the film he deserves.
I know historians are going to pick nits, but First Man is a remarkable piece of cinema. Yes, the story glides through key touchstones in the tumultuous space race decade of the 1960s (with some artistic licence), but really the plot concerns the Armstrong’s young daughter Karen, whose death haunts the already withdrawn and introverted Neil, driving him ever deeper inside himself, at times alienating his wife Janet and his children.
Some have claimed First Man is slow and dull, wrongly in my opinion. Yes, it is slow, but it is never dull. Ryan Gosling gives a superb lead performance. However Claire Foy’s Janet really enhances the emotional core of the film. In many ways, hers is the more difficult role as it could so easily have fallen into stereotype with a lesser actress (not to mention screenplay, with Josh Singer adapting James R Hansen’s book).
As for Chazelle, his directorial choices are very shrewd. With the notable exception of the final act, he eschews big scale IMAX style epic wide shots, instead opting for grainier, claustrophobic, inside-the-space-capsule realism, utilising close-ups and held-held camera. Complimenting this are the fragmented family scenes at the Armstrong home, bringing to mind films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The film avoids melodrama and histrionics, with the most heartbreaking moments being dealt with in a subtle, matter-of-fact way, often cutting directly to events such as funerals – a technique which makes the sudden tragedy that litters the narrative all the more shocking. It is worth adding that the cinematography, editing, sound design and music score (Justin Hurwitz) are all absolutely first-rate.
Although the sheer bravery (and arguably foolhardiness) of those in NASA is rightly celebrated, the man-on-the-moon as grief metaphor is so haunting, powerful and moving that in the end Neil Armstrong’s extraordinary achievement seems less about the space race and more about finally letting go. I freely admit First Man moved me to tears.