UNIVERSAL PICTURES (2018)

 

Director: Damien Chazelle

 

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit

When there’s a female President, the story regarding her husband will have to find a new title.

 

Having wowed the Academy with the excellent Whiplash and the sublime La La Land , Damien Chazelle’s next project is to take us higher still – about 240,000 miles higher, in fact. First Man focuses on the man who made those historic first steps on the moon’s surface, Neil Armstrong, and his journey between 1961-1969 from engineer to an eternal icon.

Everyone knows how the story ends, similarly to Titanic and Infinity War (…wait), so Chazelle’s biggest challenge was to create something interesting and intriguing with the material (based on James R. Hansen’s official biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong) to keep the audience engaged up until the main event during the movies final act. Rather than focusing on the moon landing itself, Chazelle opts for a character study of Armstrong and his family, including their struggles with grief over the loss of their young daughter, stress and doubt, coupled with the growing backlash from the government and nation regarding the space race and the extreme amounts of money that were thrown at it. Reteaming with Ryan Gosling, leading First Man as Neil Armstrong, and with Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, the movie is anchored by two dependably strong performances. Gosling’s near-trademark understated approach works just fine here as the introverted Armstrong and Foy is excellent as the struggling mother and wife – but rest assured, there are no clichés in the characters and their labels. By focusing on the family, the movie is gifted some real emotional heft, especially in the movies latter moments.

 

Technically speaking, First Man is immense. The cinematography is superb, the camerawork engaging (the tightly framed, near claustrophobics shot of Armstrong are hugely effective) and the sound design brutally realised – every shaking piece of metal is captured, every thud and scrape feels close to home and the use of dead silence is powerful. Really powerful. Fuelled by a sublime score from Justin Hurwitz, there’s a real Kubrickian feel to parts of the movie. The music bobs, weaves and pulses with an ethereal grandeur and is one of the standout elements of the entire picture.

 

Whilst Gosling’s performance suits the man he is portraying, it’s fair to say Armstrong wasn’t the most charismatic of people – he was an engineer and an astronaut, his job wasn’t to sell celebrity. It’s Foy as Janet that really keeps the movie's momentum in the times that it begins to sag – and there are a few of those moments in the long duration. It’s a purposely paced movie, it takes its time, but certain elements didn’t feel anywhere near as vital as others. When it needed to, however, the movie ramped up to mach speed and the chaotic moments felt visceral and packed a punch – this was one of the most dangerous missions in history with a huge and hazardous testing process just to get it hopefully right.

 

When it comes to characters and emotion, Chazelle really does nail it. The emotion-packed moon landing was beautiful, mesmerising and laced with sadness all at once – ignore Trump’s whining about the lack of flag planting, we don’t need to see it and there’s plenty of stars and stripes throughout. When it soared, it really did soar, but the feeling that something was missing hangs over the majority of First Man. It just misses out on being out of this world, but it’s still one hell of a ride.

October 14h 2018

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

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