Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler
Director: Damien Chazelle
Running Time: 141 mins
First Man is an American film about the life of Neil Armstrong, and his role in the US space programme over the course of the 1960s that led to the legendary Apollo 11 mission as he became the first man to walk on the Moon.
Not only is First Man an excellent biography that tells a riveting and often moving story, but, rather unusually for the genre, it’s an incredible technical achievement, with stunning visual effects, brilliant directing, incredible cinematography, beautiful music and more adding to the emotion back on Earth, as we see an excellent lead performance from Ryan Gosling bring the story of Neil Armstrong to life in vivid fashion.
For starters, one of the best things about this film is how well-balanced it is between the personal life of Armstrong, and his work on the space programme during the 1960s. In that, it has all the emotion and depth of the best biographical dramas, but with the added element of the thrills of the Space Race, in a story that’s certain to satisfy both those looking for a great drama as well as a brilliant portrayal of the Apollo mission.
Let’s start on the personal side of things, which is arguably the harder side of the story to tell, given the legendary status of Armstrong’s role in the space programme. Most will likely be going into this film waiting for the moment we see him step on the Moon, but what First Man does so brilliantly is give due focus and attention to the personal background of the whole story, which is what makes that final payoff all the more powerful.
Although I can’t say the movie starts in spectacular fashion, with an opening fifteen minutes or so that fails to live up to the dramatic power it’s trying to push, that side of the story grows and grows in emotional intensity as the movie goes on, and given the rather long runtime of nearly two and a half hours, it reaches a stunning emotional peak as the story comes to a climax.
And while you may want to see more of the space stuff, the screenplay creates such emotion around Armstrong’s personal life and motivations as he finds himself closer and closer to that legendary mission. Whether it be his relationship with his wife, played excellently by Claire Foy, or the constant setbacks he suffers due to losses of family members and friends, there’s so much emotional depth on display here, making for a thoroughly engrossing watch throughout.
Ryan Gosling does a brilliant job in the lead role too, and with his understated but effortlessly likable and relatable performance, portraying Armstrong as a deeply dedicated and caring man, even though he may appear cold and introverted on the outside at times, it’s so easy to believe in his story right the way through, and to be completely pulled into all of the ups and downs that he went through over the course of a tumultuous decade.
Now, on the flipside, there’s the story about the space programme. Without the personal side of things, this wouldn’t have the same emotional punch as it does, and that’s the film’s greatest achievement. However, it also makes a fascinating watch out of telling the story of the Space Race, and in particular puts into perspective the reality of the programme beyond the legend of the Moon landing in 1969.
In that, the film’s main discourse focuses on assessing the cost of the space programme, with particular attention being drawn to the human cost of dangerous tests and mistakes that is somewhat glossed over when looking back with rose-tinted glasses. It’s not a downbeat or overly critical look at the space programme, and rightly so, as it clearly identifies many of the immense benefits brought about by the historic work done by the brave and bright men and women of the era, but it does feature a fascinating degree of introspection that makes it thoroughly worth the watch.
But then, there’s the pure romance and wonder of space exploration, and that too is something that First Man brings to light in stunning fashion. Much like director Damien Chazelle did with his passionate love letter to the old movie musical in La La Land, there are moments in this film where he completely strips away all of the anxieties and problems associated with the space programme, and lets you sit back in wonderment and awe as you witness man going further than ever before.
The sequences set in space are by far the film’s most moving and awe-inspiring moments, and as I was watching some of these visually breathtaking moments above the Earth’s atmosphere, I was taken back to that childlike wonder that was always associated with space travel, reminding me of that old feeling when being an astronaut was the coolest, most exciting job you could ever think of, something that absolutely blew me away at times here.
Of course, none of that could have been achieved without the exceptional technical work on this film. More so than any other, I feel that First Man is a crowning achievement for how far visual effects have come, with CGI and immense ambition that used to be reserved for only the biggest blockbusters being combined with a down-to-earth and deep story, and making for some of the most powerful and awe-inspiring sequences you’ve seen in a very long time.
Chazelle’s direction is exceptional throughout, the cinematography brings both the claustrophobia of sitting in a rickety old rocket as well as the immense scale of space to life in stunning detail, the score is a beautiful and inspiring work, and those visual effects are jaw-dropping to witness, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved on screen further and further in electrifying fashion.
Overall, I was hugely impressed with First Man. A riveting and moving personal story that’s combined with a fascinating and grounded portrayal of the space race, as well as some of the most spectacular space vistas you’ve ever witnessed, it’s a thoroughly engrossing and often even mind-blowing watch, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.4.