With First Man, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) proves he has the mettle to contend with high drama.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
I’m at a crossroads with First Man, the new film by Damien Chazelle about Neil Armstrong and his rendezvous with history. On the one hand, I fully appreciate it as a tremendous work of cinema. It is muscular, excellently performed and truly captivating. It establishes Chazelle is a formidable directing force. On the other, I found myself incapable of connecting with it on an emotional level. Now, I’m not sure if it’s because the screenplay is confused about its hero, or because I, like many Americans back in the ‘60s, feel space should only be explored once matters of the Earth have been settled.
Alas, the moon has been conquered. Armstrong has been immortalised. Millions of dollars have been spent and hunger is still rampant. But I suppose such questions of ethics should be shoved aside for the time being. First Man begins with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as a test pilot for NASA. He is accepted as an astronaut cadet and before long he’s been chosen to land on the moon.
At home he has two sons and a spouse, Janet (Claire Foy), who is restricted to the domesticated wife role because it’s the 1960s and the film needed a female lead. Foy is a remarkable actor and she does the best with what she’s given, but once you’ve seen one domesticated wife raising the children alone and fretting over her reckless husband, you’ve seen them all.
First Man, based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen, is so well made that it’s easy to overlook such shortcomings. It is accompanied by a musical score that pulls off the difficult task of being inspiring and unsettling at the same time. It has wonderful sound design – the creaking and cracking of rickety vessels wrestling with the atmosphere is jarring in the extreme. It somehow manages to fit the standard biopic mould while carefully subverting it. It’s not necessarily the cleverest movie, but it does a mighty fine job at making us believe it is.
And yet I am confused by its portrayal of the great Armstrong. He comes across as a man displeased to have greatness thrust upon him. When he is awarded the Apollo 11 mission, he’s about as thrilled as a sick hamster. His answers at the press conference are painfully cryptic. Is he excited to be going, or disappointed? Why would this man, who seemingly has everything, risk it all to fly to the moon? Without knowing, it’s awfully hard to cheer for the guy.
First Man is available in Australian cinemas from October 11
Also screening as part of the RoofTop Movies Program 1 on Nov 16 & Nov 25.
Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018