As I type out this introduction, I have been nonstop listening to Justin Hurwitz’s majestic score for this film ever since I walked out of the theatre a few days ago. Seriously, give ‘Docking Waltz’ and ‘The Landing’ a listen to truly get a feeling of the grandeur of the events taking place. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, it’s that you need to spend an evening listening to that score with a glass of wine at your side. Nevertheless, on with the review.
‘First Man’ is the latest film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle who’s past work on features such as ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land’ have been some of my recent favourite movies, especially the former which will undoubtedly remain one of my all time favourites. With this in mind, I was set to walk into the theatre and bask in the glow of this young directors talent and I can say that in this respect, it did not disappoint.
‘First Man’ begins with our title character Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) performing a flight in a rickety aircraft that immediately throws you headfirst into the experience. You really feel like you’re in the cockpit alongside Armstrong. The sheer power of the rockets and aircraft in this film is expertly demonstrated with shaky cam shots alongside screeching noise from the aircrafts metal ascending in pitch and violence, you often find yourself begging for it to be over. But the effect Chazelle was going for is perfectly achieved, often giving me a Dunkirk (2017) vibe.
Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of stoic astronaut Neil Armstrong was also notable, as within the first few scenes of his interaction with his family around him we pickup on the fact he is a cold, calculated individual, who only shows his feelings a handful of times throughout the film. It’s not coincidental that a lot of these moments come when Neil is strapped to his ship in space, overlooking the earth in all her magnificence. As for Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy), she is a much more open human being, visibly wearing her emotions on her sleeves in each scene and matches Gosling blow for blow throughout and deserves high praise.
The overall film is about Neil, but also about the sacrifices that were made in order for us to get to the moon, something which many (including myself) had not looked at in depth until now, which I thank the movie for making me do so. There are often times in the movie when there are quiet moments for reflection which do make you begin to weigh the ethical arguments in your mind which is something that every film should try to do and this film certainly achieves that goal.
As for overall cinematography and effects, this is truly where the film shines brightest, Chazelle uses 16 and 32mm lenses for the majority of the film which helps give the picture a crisp look which gives it that retro look which works so well in this case, as for the sequences set on the moons surface, they switch out the 16/32mm for a 70mm IMAX camera which absolutely blows you away (or rather, sucks the air out of the room) when you see it for the first time, something which they say was intentional to achieve a ‘wizard of oz’ effect. The effects are simply astonishing and most certainly the best I’ve seen this year, simply because I could not tell you what was CGI and what was practical, it is that superb.
If I was to point out any flaws, they would definitely be aimed at the films final act, as I felt the lunar sequence felt slightly rushed whereas getting there felt like forever (but luckily the score really shines during this part) and the film seems to be in a rush to finish from there on in.The last shot consists of a very Chazelle-esque shot of two individuals speaking with only their expressions to each other, which leaves you to fill in the finale however you wish to interpret it. Sometimes Armstrong does sometimes come across as a rather dull individual but when you remember his rather tragic past, these moments are justified. It also alluded to the fact that his marriage to Janet did not last, something which if you looked for, you would spot clues, especially in that last scene.
In Conclusion , First Man was a visual masterpiece, narratively it is strong but sometimes character development is hard to locate and can come across as weak. The film knows its importance and never downplays this, as I found myself in awe of the final act I kept on forgetting that this event really DID happen, which is a testament to the human spirit and just goes to show what perseverance and determination can achieve, but also turns your head to look at the perspective of those who did not agree with the race to space due to the funds that could have gone elsewhere and the lives that were lost in bringing about this victory. I will certainly be purchasing this on Blu-Ray and playing it on the best surround sound system I can find to truly place myself in that cockpit which is the only true way this film can be experienced to its full potential, although probably the weakest of Chazelle’s films so far for me (by inches) it is still a definite Oscar contender in a number of categories simply due to how well made and produced it is. I will certainly watch this again whenever I feel like looking to the stars to escape. It helps to be reminded every once in a while how very small we are in such a wide world around us.
Overall rating: 8.6/10