Film review: ‘FIRST MAN’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built for Speed’

The moon-shot movie has almost become a separate genre and with films the calibre of The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures, a consistently good one. Now, Academy Award-winning director of La La Land and Whiplash, Damien Chazelle has entered the space-race with First Man, the story of the original moon landing. Diverting from the slick style of most recent space-race movies, this film will thrill many but may prove difficult for some audiences.

As much as a homage to the bravery and ingenuity of NASAs space pioneers the film, as the title suggests, focuses on the man who first stepped onto the moon on July 21st 1969, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). The film casts him as a stoic figure in a chaotic drama that not only involves the frantic race to beat the Russians to the moon but personal upheaval as Armstrong and his wife try to cope with the tragedy of losing their young daughter to cancer. This awful event sets the film’s grim tone and sends Armstrong into what appears to be a depressive state. As an engineer and space pilot he prides himself on being able to solve every problem with scientific logic and the film makes a point of showing his written attempts to strategize his daughter’s treatment alongside his engineering equations but he’s unsure how to cope with this unstoppable tragedy.

Despite the emotional weight of the situation, Armstrong is at times difficult to sympathise with as Gosling gives him the blank expression and intense taciturn demeanour of a serial killer. Still, his tightly bottled grief does lead to a powerful emotional pay-off. Gosling’s backed by a fine supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll in a memorable but none too flattering portrayal of a cocky Buzz Aldrin. Thankfully, the film also places Armstrong’s wife Janet (Claire Foy) at the centre of the story making her a formidable character as she tries to hold her fracturing family together.

Chazelle appears determined to align the space flight pioneers with 15th century explorers who risked their lives venturing into the unknown.  In so doing, the film reflects on the many pilots and crew who died in the space program’s early stages. It also depicts space flight very differently to most Hollywood films with no sleek, shiny and comfortable spacecraft but instead, cramped dark tin cans that creek like old ships.

Chazelle employs grainy film stock designed to capture the look of 1960’s news footage and to underscore the rough-and-ready nature of the space program at the time. He also employs a lot of close-ups and point-of-view shots to personalise events and create a sense of being on board the rickety space craft. In addition, he uses furious wobble-cam to crank up the tension. This approach will prove intense and exhilarating for some but annoying for those who prefer a more conventional style of framing.

Typically, Chazelle makes excellent use of music which ranges from soulful tunes to jazzy numbers and majestic orchestral pieces that recall Kubrick’s soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the focus is more personal, the film does allude to the surrounding tumult of the 1960’s with images of the Vietnam War and protests about the money spent on the space program.

While some will take issue with stylistic aspects of this film, First Man is another striking addition to the space flight genre.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Historical/ space-race.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Damien Chazelle.

Release date: 11th Oct 2018.

Running time: 141 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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