Damien Chazelle / USA / 2018 / 138 mins
At the Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 12 Oct
Fresh from their Best Picture near miss at the 2017 Oscars, director-actor double-act Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling are back, this time with a biopic of the first man to ever walk on the surface of the moon. Taking us from Neil Armstrong’s early days as a pilot through the devastating loss of his daughter and the torturous Gemini programme right up to his world-famous step of giant proportions, First Man is an uncomfortably intimate portrait of the man himself and the ordeal that space travel must have been.
The intensity of Chazelle’s earlier work (Whiplash, La La Land) has been ratcheted up a couple more notches for this film, with handheld shaky cam techniques communicating the claustrophobia of both space travel and Armstrong’s awkward home life. Indeed, his alternating use of 16mm film for an authentic home movie feel and 35mm for the terse lack of control in the cockpit scenes are two of the highlights of the film, even if they do become a little nauseating by its close.
Thankfully, the gorgeous expanse of 65mm is on hand for breath-taking shots of the stratosphere to provide some welcome relief. There also a few nifty cinematographic set pieces, including a fantastic first-person view of pilot ejection and an excellently eerie landing sequence. It’s certainly a pretty film, but it’s sometimes difficult to know what we’re supposed to take from it other than an enhanced understanding of how moon pioneers were largely feeling in the dark, often with tragic results.
The same goes for the characters. Tight-lipped to the point of taciturnity, Gosling’s Armstrong is not the most flattering portrayal of the man you’re likely to see and Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin comes off as even worse with his straight-talking social ineptitude. Meanwhile, any hopes that First Man might boost the profile of the mission’s forgotten man, Michael Collins, are in vain. Indeed, the only time his name is mentioned at all is when an Armstrong at the end of his tether tells him to shut up.
As a result, the entire male cast of First Man do little to elicit our sympathies, with the majority of the other mission members just cardboard cutouts of characters, their edges and personalities as square and uninteresting as their crewcuts and jawlines. By contrast, Claire Foy puts in a towering performance as Armstrong’s wife Janet as she rages against Armstrong’s increasing withdrawal from his family and NASA’s headstrong pursuit of their goal.
First Man contains some beautiful scenes and gives a disconcertingly intense insight into the plight of the first NASA astronauts, refusing to shy away from the dark side of its subject matter. But while it may well educate us on certain aspects of the space race and elicit both respect and pity for its cast of characters, this rarely ever morphs into affection or empathy. The result is a lonely, cold and emotionally jarring vision of the world – perhaps much like the experience of space travel itself.