First Man lifts off as the perfect biographical leap for mankind. We’ve seen plenty of space exploration films, particularly those that attempt to traverse the Moon. ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ to name a couple, where both the pressured astronauts and intense mission control have been equally portrayed. This film should be cataclysmically generic, sparking little to no ignition for a story that has been shown in film for decades. Yet, not only does Chazelle craft a thrilling biopic, but one that is masterfully astute. One that radiates wonderment and awe. It’s one small step for biopics, but one giant leap for Chazelle. Cementing him as one of the best directors working today.
First Man chronicles the career of Neil Armstrong and the race against the Soviets to conduct the first lunar landing. These mathematically complex calculations and trajectories are accompanied by Armstrong’s personal life which is filled with loss, sorrow and fragility. Two juxtaposing environments exhuming differing emotions that inherently affect Armstrong as a person. The colossal pressure to succeed in opportunities that no one else has been presented with contrasts a different type of pressure. Family.
Chazelle ensures that his personal life is just as important as his historical achievement. Balancing various thrilling rocket tests, from Gemini to Apollo 11, with the dramatic tension spawning between him and his remaining family. Both equally as intense, yet both consistently intertwining. It’s an ecosystem of melancholy and grandeur. For every death, there is a funeral. For every groundbreaking milestone, there is a celebration. Each event that takes place manifests in Armstrong’s mind, making his perilous journey personal and dangerous. The tragic loss of his daughter could’ve affected his working ability, however his focused demeanour reassured NASA that he was the correct choice to lead the space race. Chazelle presents this delicately, but never resorts to melodrama. Several scenes of Armstrong reminiscing or imagining his daughter’s life ensures that she is a source that powers him through tough challenges.
There is not a single scene that feels drawn out or unnecessary. Every action and line of dialogue acts as a star, slowly forming a glistening path to the Moon. Chazelle, much like Armstrong, was focused. Exploring several perspectives on how the space race was viewed during the 60s. From civilians believing it to be a waste of tax payer’s money to astronauts wanting to overtake the rivalling Soviet nation. He compacts a wide range of views in the film’s 140-minute runtime, and yet it never once felt bloated. The wealthy runtime allows Chazelle to be patient with specific historical segments, and it works seamlessly.
The heart-stopping opening sequence reassures us that this is an authentic biopic. Intense, powerful and exhilarating. He somehow manages to make the predictable Apollo 11 mission, which we all know was a success, a hyperventilating experience. As the fuel levels dramatically decrease, my heart rate increases. For a director to make a predictable story unpredictable is an achievement. His succinctly subtle long takes and technical prowess only heightens the high quality that is being produced.
The Apollo 11 liftoff sequence, accompanied by Hurwitz’ euphoric score, was outstanding. The astonishing sound editing as the rocket pressurises, the gorgeous cinematography visualising the Moon’s tranquility and the claustrophobic camera movements intently focussing on Gosling’s eyes. It was a symphony of technical splendour. For the first time since ‘Gravity’, I experienced the feeling of awe. So much so, that I became emotional towards the film’s conclusion. It reminded me why I love films so much, why we go to the cinema and why powerful stories that represent humanity need to be told time and time again.
Gosling was the perfect choice to play Armstrong. He is able to portray the pressure, intent and emotional damage from just his eyes alone. It’s a nuanced performance that stays with you hours after the credits roll. Foy embodies his wife perfectly by harnessing the fear of losing her husband. You can see the build-up as the years pass by, to which she soon unleashes all of her thoughts upon Armstrong in a scene that should garner her some acclaim. However, there is one pivotal scene that sublimely illustrated Armstrong’s position. As he says farewell to his children before departing, his youngest gives him a hug. The eldest, however, shakes his hand. And it’s at that moment I knew this film was something special. The struggles of maintaining fatherhood with work was eloquently illustrated in that one scene. No dialogue. Just two actions. I could also discuss the bracelet scene on the Moon, but I would rather not become an emotional mess again.
First Man truly surprised me. I was expecting Chazelle’s weakest film, considering his perfect career thus far, but I received one of his strongest yet. It reassured me that film is not a dying art, but a universal medium that can transcend time itself. Suffice to say, First Man gets the perfect rating, and is quite simply the best film of the year so far. An absolutely incredible journey that should not be missed.