Ryan Gosling and Damian Chazelle are proving themselves to be somewhat of a Hollywood dream team. After La La Land, their next collaboration was going to be one to watch, and they set their sights big, taking on the story of Neil Armstrong and the very first moon landing. Although to call it a film about the moon landing would be doing it an injustice, as this only makes up a relatively short amount of the films run-time.
The aspiration on show to take on such a well-known pop culture icon is staggering, many would buckle under the weight of expectation, the weight is not only on Gosling’s shoulders in portraying such a universally known figure, but in Chazelle’s in following a rich and long heritage of space depictions in cinema, especially as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi’s ultimate blueprint, this comparison may not be entirely fair, however, as mentioned earlier, despite the films marketing campaign suggesting otherwise, the moon landings and sequences in space don’t dominate the films proceedings, but I digress, let’s dive in.
American icon Neil Armstrong goes from family heartbreak to international acclaim, when his career as a NASA pilot takes him all the way into space, on his way to becoming the first human to walk among the stars.
Damian Chazelle is quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s most valuable directors, and after this film, it’s not hard to see why. His vision for beautiful film-making knows no bounds.
Don’t let the films posters and trailers tell you otherwise, this isn’t a story of a man walking on the moon, it’s a love story, first and foremost. A very human love story tinged with grief and unspeakable loss. Neil Armstrong is not the American icon he has become, he is a regular man, dealing with the fall-out from some of life’s most unsavoury aspects, and how difficult dealing with emotions can truly be.
Those, like me, who knew little about Armstrong besides his reputation will be stunned at the sheer depth of life he had, both good and bad. It does a great job of humanising a man that many hold as not a regular human, but a hero to be revered, he was not just the first man on the moon, he had a life beyond that, and this film beautifully shows us that side of him, much to its credit.
That word ‘beautiful’ is a key one that will come up more than once while describing this film. There are many superlatives to be used to describe this, but none as powerful as the word beautiful, it takes a lot for a film to achieve beauty, in not just its visual presentation, but in its performances, Ryan Gosling was the perfect man to show us the human side of Neil Armstrong, his strength is subtlety, he isn’t a performer that gives big, energetic performances (not that I don’t doubt that he could) instead he gives smaller, nuanced and emotional roles, the tone in which he portrays Armstrong is a perfect match for the films overall restrained tone, it’s one of bubbling tension. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, he keeps his passion and emotion just under the surface.
Helping Ryan Gosling massively is his co-lead Claire Foy, who portrays Janet, Neil Armstrong’s first wife. In many ways, Foy is the emotional heart of the story, in that she is allowed the sudden outbursts of emotion to try and break her husbands facade of emotional stability, the chemistry crackles and pops off the screen, and their story is a believable one, a couple worked through unbearable odds to keep the flame burning, Claire Foy is the wick that burns the metaphorical flame in this film.
My one main gripe with the film is the portrayal of Buzz Aldrin, who sometimes comes across as a jackass. Maybe this was intended, I cannot attest to Mr Aldrin’s character, so maybe it was a researched decision? Either way he comes across as incongruous at times, and extremely selfish at others, this eventually softens however towards the films conclusion.
Last, but certainly not least, I must give a special mention to the direction and cinematography in this film, as it is nothing short of stunning. The contrast used between the scenes on Earth and the brief sequence on the moon is nothing short of jaw-dropping, the reflections in the astronauts helmets giving a unique perspective of the scale of the venture, giving the feel that they are mere specks in the shadow of their gargantuan achievement, just as the moon casts a shadow over the Earth. The feeling I got from seeing the moon portrayed in this film comes very close to the feeling I got after watching 2001 for the first time, one of sheer awe and amazement. It was, forgive the overuse of this word, beautiful.
I could go one for hours about how the film looks and was filmed, from the numerous scenes in the cockpits of various vehicles and spacecraft to reflections in visors, even to the framing of seemingly regular scenes on Earth. It all goes to show that Damian Chazelle and his crew weren’t content with just making their space scenes stand-out, they wanted to make everything look its best, and they certainly did.
In conclusion, it would have been no east task to just tell the story of the first moon landing with any conviction, and a near impossible one to get us to relate to a figure such as Neil Armstrong, but this movie not only achieved that, it surpassed any and all expectations to become not only a stark, dramatic story of love and loss, but an awe-inspiring achievement in cinematography. You will have to look very hard to find a film that not only looks this good, and surprises dramatically, like First Man does.