First Man is astonishing. It’s a supreme tribute not only to the drive to space, with its mix of scientific drive and nationalistic hubris, but a deeply impactful look at a taciturn individual, Neil Armstrong, whose very contradictions made him one of the more fascinating yet misunderstood figures of the 20th century.
As a follow-up to Damien Chazelle’s musical-themed Whiplash and La La Land he presents a percussive, explosive work no less carefully realized. The film is a dance of light and colour, with many of its visual moments from the opening experimental plane crash through to voyages to space with an exhilarating kineticism.
All this sound and fury is contrasted scene-after-scene by the quiet confidence of Armstrong. Ryan Gosling is no stranger to playing characters that say little and sometimes do even less, yet his gift is in conveying these inner demons with the smallest of gestures. Projected in glorious IMAX, these tiny moments become eminently readable as we grasp the more subtle ways that contrast with the brash, fighter-jock nature of the traditional Astronaut type.
On a physical production level the film is glorious. Chazelle shot on numerous media – 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, VistaVision and IMAX, resulting in a shifting scope and grain structure that helps situate the various time periods. Laser projected, the imagery is jaw dropping, especially with the full reveal of the IMAX frame when landing on the moon. One literally feels that they’ve journeyed along, and it’s one of the great experiences of cinema.
It’s a given that such a work will pay attention to physical details, but the recreation of the smallest details of the capsules often astonish. This highly analogue world of rivets and cloth straps seems the furthest away from a sleek image of space, the whipping dial gauges reminding what Armstrong states that these flights were occurring a mere 60 years after humans learned the art of flight. The preposterousness and glory of the entire enterprise is captured, particularly with the ambivalence of those protesting about “Whitey in Space” while those starved in the cities of the nation.
The long shadows of 2001 and Right Stuff certainly fall over the film, yet Chazelle wisely focusses all his attention on the eponymous character. This is Armstrong’s view, from the claustrophobic shots from within the capsule to the violently shaking, streaked photography. In lesser hands this would be nauseating, but with Chazelle and his collaborators these elements serve in almost painterly ways, creating impressionistic moods of chaos that still feel entirely subjective and character driven. Even the POV shots of placing one small step are done to bring the audience into the experience of Armstrong himself, allowing the actions to speak far more than his sparse dialogue ever could.
First Man is fantastic, a truly energizing piece of spectacle filmmaking that at its core is the story of one man’s journey from personal tragedy to global triumph. The scope is absolutely up to the task of capturing such a story, turning the modern tools of film production towards reigniting our imagination (and reticence) about the costly journey to space. This is a film to be experienced on the largest canvas possible, an old-fashioned spectacle that reminds that wonder truly can be captured by the medium of film.