Visually and musically out of this world, politically it also packs some punch, however with a slightly melodramatic character arc for Armstrong.
With First Man, Damien Chazelle switches gear away from musicals and films about troubled musicians and instead blasts off into a slightly new direction with a biopic of troubled astronaut Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling and based on James R. Hansen’s biographical novel that was penned by Josh singer (Spotlight, The Post).
Story + Themes
The film takes a slow and methodical pace and follows the 8 year period in Armstrong’s life beginning in 1961 with his time as a NASA test pilot for the X-15 rocket plane and ending on 1969 with the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Rather than focusing on the bigger political context of the space race and the Cold War, the film zones in on Armstrong’s inner struggles, in particular with his overzealous focus on his work at the cost of distancing himself from his wife (Claire Foy) and his two sons. The film attributes his extreme work ethic as being a coping mechanism to deal with the bereavement of his 2 year old daughter from leukemia and compounded with all the accidents which took the lives of his astronaut colleagues and friends.
That is not to say that the film didn’t try to be political at times. There were several strong critiques about the use of tax payers dollars to fund the space programme, most poignantly after the explosion of Apollo 1 during its rehearsal test. Here Chazelle featured Gil Scott Herron’s radical song “Whitey on the Moon” inter cut with people protesting about NASA’s space programme.
The song challenges both the space programme and US values in general through its lyrics about the disconnect between the lives of poor African Americans and the white bureaucrats spending millions on the space programme. It was written by Gil Scott Heron just after leaving college to write poetry and music at the time of the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. He was inspired by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver who described the moon landing as a “flying circus” meant to distract Americans from problems at home.
Another big political decision in the film was not featuring the flag being planted on the moon which drew the ire of Trump and many others who said they wouldn’t watch the film. What the headlines don’t mention is that there is an American flag seen during the lunar landing, however the moment it is placed is not portrayed in all the vaingloriousness these people would have liked to see it in. Here I do agree with Chazelle’s artistic decision. Armstrong’s lunar landing is as much an achievement of humanity, for the first time putting its feet down on another celestial body and overcoming insurmountable odds, as it is of any one country.
In addition the film was not about the space race but rather about the life of the space race’s leading man, a man who put his work above anything else and had little interest in politics. Whenever someone would bring politics up to Armstrong in the film, he would give them the cold shoulder and tell them that’s not his job, his job was to focus on getting to the moon.
Visually the film feels very immersive and realistic like a documentary through its use of various film formats and handheld camera movements. Most of the scenes are filmed in 16mm giving them a gritty cinema verité feel, particularly those in the crowded ramshackle spacecraft interiors which when paired with the immaculate production design really draw you in and make you feel that you’re watching real footage. Whats even more effective is the alternation between 16mm, 35mm and 70mm IMAX formats. The contrast created between the interior shots of the spacecraft filmed in 16mm and the exterior space shots filmed in crisp 70mm IMAX makes those moments in space even more awe-inspiring.
The camerawork is also used to enhance Neil Armstrong’s isolation. Throughout the film cinematographer Linus Sandgren frames Armstrong as alone in most shots particularly in his home where he is usually lingering in dark corners of the house and caught up in thought.
The moon landing scene was also beautifully orchestrated with the sudden switch from wide shots and heroic music during the landing sequence into almost complete silence except from Armstrong’s breathing and tight close-ups from the first person perspective.
The sound editor Ai-Ling Lee consulted numerous astronauts about the exact sounds they heard while on their missions, they all highlighted how while there was constant commotion outside, inside their spacesuit there was very little sound, only the airflow from their own breathing and life support system.
The soundtrack was composed by Chazelle regular Justin Hurwitz, who had worked on all of Chazelle’s films back to his first feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Unlike the previous films, there were some bold musical decisions made in First Man.
Other than the use of a 94 piece orchestra, which is not too radical, Hurwitz decided to opt for quite a vintage effect by using the Theremin and the analog Moog synthesiser as well as vintage sound-altering devices such as Leslie Speakers (that 60s tremelo effect usually used with church organs) and the Echoplex (delayed echo effect) to complement the period the film was set in. Overall the musical choices worked to a phenomenal effect particularly the heroic orchestral movement used in the Apollo 11 landing.
What stood out for me was the use of the Theremin to create a great eerie otherworldly effect. Interestingly Neil Armstrong was a fan of the instrument and brought recordings with him on some missions. Ironically the instrument was created by Soviet scientist Leon Theremin while experimenting with military detection technology. Its a truly transcendental instrument which involves altering radio waves with your hands to create melodic sounds.
Not to forget the fantastic use of the harp…
There were also some pieces clearly influenced by Kubrick’s use of Blue Danube Waltz in Space Odyssey such as the Docking Waltz below.
Acting + Character Development
Acting wise, Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong plays his usual silent and brooding type, while perfect for the character of Armstrong, it doesn’t give much room for Gosling to expand his range as an actor nor wow us with his performance. On the other hand Claire Foy as his wife who has to deal with Armstrong’s withdrawness has an excellent performance but is not given much screen time.
My main criticism of the film is Armstrong’s character arc and how all his actions about going to space and focusing only on his career as an astronaut are a direct result of the death of his young daughter and his wish to escape the bounds of earth to get over it. In his life as well as in Hansen’s biography, Armstrong avoided talking about his daughter and after her death he immediately enrolled in the NASA. For Chazelle and Singer this was enough to create a life spanning bereavement that resulted in the first lunar landing. Nonetheless, regardless of how true or not this was as a trigger event for Armstrong, in my view this link is a bit reductionist and the scenes that focused on it were a tad melodramatic.
Overall however, the combination of cosmic visuals mixed with kitchen sink family issues, a phenomenal score and at least an attempt at political relevance make First Man a very entertaining watch and one to check out in silver screens today!
Casual viewer rating / Film buff rating: B+