The moon landing is one those historical events which people who were alive at the time like to say “I remember exactly where I was when man first set foot on the moon”. The metaphorical and literal small step for man, and giant leap for mankind is also a topic of much debate among conspiracy theorists, but despite your beliefs, there probably isn’t a person living today that hasn’t heard of Neil Armstrong. And yet, with this event being so well known, this is the first time that a Hollywood studio has fully adapted this particular tale for the big screen.
La La Land and Whiplash director Damien Chazelle takes the helm here, and brings along Ryan Gosling to star in the main role as Armstrong, with The Crown’s Claire Foy playing Janet Armstrong. The film premiered at Venice Film Festival to strong reviews, and having missed it at the festival I finally got my chance to see it for myself as it graced Maltese theatres this week.
From the word go, First Man had me hooked. The opening scene is one of the most tense and claustrophobic that I’ve seen all year, as we see bare witness to Armstrong in an X-15 test flight. This thrilling introduction to the character tells the audience one thing; this is a man made for the most severe situations, able to keep his composure even when all seems lost. Throughout the film his mettle is tested physically, psychologically, and emotionally, and Gosling is at his usual best in portraying a complicated yet brilliant man. Foy is a great choice to play Janet Armstrong, and she is a delight to watch as she displays great emotional range, and there is a believable chemistry between the two leads that almost portrays them as that typical 1960s American married couple. The man is the emotionally restrained working stiff, the wife takes care of the kids and ensures her husband has everything he needs.
The bond between Neil and Janet feels like it could have been explored a bit deeper, but instead Chazelle chooses to focus on a harrowing event in the Armstrong family’s life, that being the death of their two-year-old daughter Karen. Armstrong has been called the reluctant American hero, and that is exactly how he is presented throughout this film. He’s calculated, committed, reserved, humble, and haunted by the death of his daughter, not to mention the daunting task of attempting to set foot on the moon. It’s sad to say, but it’s the more emotional moments where Chazelle suffers this time round, and I feel that it is down to trying to condense such a detailed account into a single motion picture.
From the research I’ve done on the matter, the science is absolutely spot on, with NASA allegedly helping out wherever they could to provide as much accuracy as possible. The portrayal of Armstrong himself is apparently precise too, as stated by his son Mark Armstrong in an interview, and every scene which included a cockpit or flight of some kind had me on the edge of my seat. Chazelle combines shaky cam with long lenses and tight spaces to create some of the most brilliantly confined set pieces that I’ve seen in a film of this type. I do feel however, that he gets a bit too overzealous in the use of shaky cam when it came to dialogue sequences not involving any kind of air or spacecraft.
To conclude, whether you believe that the moon landing happened in this way, or even happened at all, is certainly up to you. Chazelle sets out to tell the story as it’s been told to the masses before, and he succeeds in doing so, but he offers a much deeper look at the man inside the suit. It might not be the director’s best effort, but when you’ve made films such Whiplash and La La Land, the bar is set pretty high. A well paired starring duo and a strong supporting cast combined with some Mach-speed thrills confirm Chazelle as a young filmmaker who plans on being relevant for many years to come.
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