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  • Writer's pictureGuy Jeffries

First Man

Director: Damien Chazelle.

Well, the eagle has landed and I was keen to see if Chazelle is going to get a predicted hat trick at next year’s Academy Awards. But this is a first for him, making a film with a screenplay not written by himself, and a film not concerning music. It’s admirable that Chazelle has chosen such a vastly different direction from his previous filmography but I wonder if this might dampen his growing hype and praise. However some things don’t change and for some reason I find it pleasing when a director finds a good team of people to work with, bringing cinematographer Linus Sandgren, costume designer Mary Zophres, Oscar winning editor Tom Cross and of course, Chazelle’s own classmate and composer Justin Hurwitz.

Based on the best selling biographical novel, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong written by two time Pulitzer Prize nominee James R. Hansen. It gives a very up-close and personal look into who Neil Armstrong was as a human being, and not just the famed astronaut that first stepped onto the moon. Whilst it tells the story of what lead up to the incredible Apollo 11 mission it’s very much in relation with how it effects Armstrong, his family and his colleagues which actually gives a humble, and ironically down-to-Earth perspective into one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Josh Singer, script writer of The Post and Spotlight was hired to write this script; and I can see why as he gives that very matter-of-fact authenticity. The amount of research, training and interviews must have been a mammoth project in itself but would still be a fraction of the enormous endeavour the people at NASA did to win the race to the moon; and this film, possibly for the first time shows the dangerous reality of what these people sacrificed into getting there.

There’s so much to take in, and whilst this might drag for a period, it’s allowing the harsh truths and history, in particular of the Armstrong family, to seep in and manifest. The name Neil Armstrong is undoubtedly one of the most famous names in history, but what about his wife. Janet, his children and the people he worked with. It doesn’t take anything away from the mission itself but instead adds a bitter, sad and endangering backstory which makes the finale all the more courageous, intense and strangely heartbreaking.

Yet again, we can really see Chazelle’s appreciation for classic cinema, using filming techniques that really plant the audience into the journey. It’s not hard to notice the grainy old fashioned look of the film in the beginning reflecting the era; with shaky cams giving viewers that real first-person perspective. As for the space exploration, it’s bravely and purposefully shot to disorientate and unsettle the audience, sometimes with moments of seemingly nothingness as the astronauts stare into the void of space with majority of the sequences held within the shuttles to give us some idea of what it would have been like for them through their eyes with this sequence being captured on IMAX 65mm stock.

Not sure if Gosling was the right person for the role; I just had difficulty seeing pass the actor and finding Armstrong for majority of the film. It might well be the fact we’re seeing the undiscovered side of Neil Armstrong but listening and watching the live broadcast, the interviews after and seeing the photos, I found it hard to connect the two people of Chazelle’s Gosling to the media coverage of Neil Armstrong. But I understand Gosling did a tremendous amount of research spending time with Armstrong’s immediate family and friends to get a feel of his character. It was probably Foy’s outstanding performance that brought it home for me. But in retrospect, that’s probably because I know next to nothing about the real Janet Armstrong so Foy has a blank canvas so to speak. I can’t see this winning an Oscar for Gosling, whereas Foy’s portrayal could well be a strong contender for supporting actress. There’s actually a bank of recognisable support actors here, mostly in relatively minor roles and it doesn’t make me wonder if stars are queuing up to share a set with Chazelle.

The entire production was astounding with costume, locations, sets and props providing an accurate depiction, giving way to full scale replicas as oppose to CGI visual effects. Chazelle clearly chases the authenticity with the research paying off and obviously the use of the real soundbites from the actual mission is a genuine touch.

Hurzitz’s does an incredibly powerful score that resonates with the tension throughout adding some horrifying effects thrown in to unnerve the audience even more. There’s a number of themes sounding here, representing Armstrong’s home life, the training and testing, and of course space itself. But it doesn’t sound wholly original or unique with Hurwitz’s “Docking Waltz” sounding very similar to Strauss’ “Blue Danube” which was used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; and I’m sure I can hear La La Land’s “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” or certainly some variation of it in tracks like “Contingency Statement”. But it’s a grand piece of music that I can at times, liken some of it to a classic James Bond movie; I’ve had “The Landing” on a constant loop for the last day or so now.

What Chazelle certainly achieves, is a stand alone film. Inspiration could have easily come from Kubrick’s 2001 and Howard’s Apollo 13 and I don’t believe it’s anything like Cuarón’s Gravity, Scott’s Martian or Nolan’s Interstellar, these latter obviously being fictional; as Chazelle seems to want to channel what Armstrong could see and feel as oppose to making this a visual spectacle. But I didn’t feel so isolated looking back at it, even with all the overwhelming odds and danger I didn’t sense fear or detachment and ironically felt more emotionally captivated when their feet were firmly on the ground. But maybe that’s because we know the outcome of this success story and not about the magnitude of failures that lead up to it.

Some people are too quick to jump to praise Chazelle. It’s technically brilliant, granted. But it’s not his greatest film and would place it below both La La Land and Whiplash. But maybe I’m expecting too much of what we know about Chazelle and we need to see the film for precisely what it is. It’s not a musical, it’s not film about music but a film about space exploration, a film about how near impossible and lucky it was for them to get there and about the one man who took that larger than giant leap for humankind. With this in mind, it’s a brilliant piece of historical cinema.

Running Time: 8

The Cast: 8

Performance: 9

Direction: 9

Story: 10

Script: 9

Creativity: 10

Soundtrack: 10

Job Description: 8

The Extra Bonus Point: 0

81% 8/10

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