There is a joke about a conspiracy theory on the moon landing. Those in tin-foil hats claim NASA asked Stanley Kubrick, having just filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to produce a fake landing to one-up the Soviets. The joke is that being a renowned perfectionist Kubrick would insist on filming it on the moon itself, thus rendering the faked landing redundant. Such a task is now obsolete as director Damien Chazelle has given us a truly authentic production of the moon landing, more so than any other, in his latest film First Man.
First Man is a radical departure from his previous two feature films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), both centred around the throes of artistic ambition. However, there is continuity with First Man and its predecessors. Where previously Miles Teller plays an incessantly tenacious jazz drummer, sought on gaining the approval of his uncompromising mentor and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and actress respectively, striving to fulfil their dreams, Chazelle presents Neil Armstrong played by a stoic Ryan Gosling as a man driven, resolute in his mission to reach the moon.
Throughout, the film navigates the dynamics of a family whose father and husband is to be sent into space to his possible death. Clare Foy gives a convincing performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife and the mother to their two sons. She struggles with the demands of raising her children while dealing with the emotional toll of her husband’s job. We see Neil haunted by the death of his daughter, the effects of which are seemingly absent in Janet’s narrative, which is disappointing as her role is ultimately reduced to ‘Neil’s aggrieved wife’. The depths of Armstrong’s grief are captured brilliantly by cinematographer Linus Sandgreen using 16mm film for the close-up shots, reflecting shadows on the moon in Gosling’s face often shot half covered in darkness. Gosling carries Armstrong’s despair to the ethereal surface of the moon where Sandgreen switches to an IMAX camera, allowing the heightened detail and clarity in the colour and light to be brought forward. Armstrong’s grief is brought into sharp focus with the bleak moonscape spanning the screen, void of life and score, where he starts to let go of the death of his daughter, leaving a memento of her behind.
Although the majority of the film is centred on the events on Earth, Chazelle is best in space; the shaky camera work on Earth, although cleverly mimicking the discord in the Armstrong family, grows tiresome. Only once Gosling is hurtling through space does Chazelle reveal the full extent of his directing talent. It is the first mission; Gemini 8, that stands out. Here Armstrong and co-pilot David Scott, played by Christopher Abbott are launched into space and then tasked with locating and docking with a second vessel. On their ascent Chazelle puts us squarely in the action along with the pilots in the cockpit, avoiding any shots of the spacecraft from the outside. The result is a tumultuous cacophony of noise, the camera shaking violently as the astronauts are rocketed through the atmosphere into space. And then they break through, into an elevated state of tranquillity after the violence of their ascent. For First Man Chazelle has paired again with composer Justin Hurwitz (whose entire filmography is made up with collaborations with Chazelle and with two Academy Awards after three films has established himself as one of the standout film composers of his generation ), and once again the result is spectacular. For the Gemini 8 mission, Hurwitz gives us a sublime waltz (Docking Waltz) as Armstrong and Scott drift through space just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the curve of which is gracefully reflected in Armstrong’s helmet.
First Man is an excellent portrayal of a lost man, buried by grief, seeking remove from his anguish in the perilous missions which have claimed so many of his friends’ lives. Ultimately, however, it is just another biopic centred around a tortured man and although it is beautifully crafted and technically sound, unlike the Gemini and Apollo space missions it makes no new ground in the already bloated genre.