Damien Chazelle may be young enough to not know who Bros are, but that hasn’t stopped the writer/ director from already producing three films worthy of awards attention.
His debut, the glorious jazz drama Whiplash, remains one of MovieGulp‘s all-time favourites. LA-based musical La La Land may be a Hollywood orgy of self-congratulation, but he sure shot the shit out of it.
With his third outing, Chazelle has fixated his lens on the first moon landing. Or more specifically, the family drama that the built up to the momentous occasion.
But where, say, Apollo 13 found glory, First Man finds drama. Where Ron Howard found glamour, Chazelle finds grit – for this is the story of the Armstrongs and their fears. The life Neil’s (Ryan Gosling) wife, Janet (Claire Foy), had to put up with, knowing her husband was a phone call away from from death.
We first meet Neil as he flies a test plane into upper reaches of the atmosphere. But we don’t see the plane. We see Neil. We see his face in close up. We see his hands on the controls. We hear the yearning and groaning of the plane’s steel. It’s claustrophobic and dark. And a sign of things to come.
Rarely does Chazelle bother with wide or establishing shots. This is a movie about the characters and their fears. The camera rarely forgets this.
And in a film without conflict – almost everybody involved in the story is pulling in the same direction – Chazelle knows he needs to find drive, which he does in the Armstrong backstory.
Neil’s first child, his daughter Karen, died of cancer at the age of two. It’s something used to define Neil, a thorough, logical, smart man who helplessly watched his daughter’s life slip away.
What makes this compelling viewing is the way Chazelle tells the story – masterfully minimising the exposition, painting in broad strokes, seamlessly jumping from one situation to another and allowing the audience to follow without ramming plot points down their throats.
Shot on a grainy, grey film stock, First Man evokes the look and feel of the period’s TV coverage. For all the accuracy of the props, costumes and dialogue, First Man is at times an impressionist take on what happened. Space has no stars – just an empty void. Indeed, there are times when the characters, in their own homes on Earth, are surrounded by frames of total blackness.
And each character is wonderfully painted. Sure, Gosling does his broody, minimal-dialogue thing, but it’s well-suited to the role of the stoic Armstrong and with Claire Foy doing the heavy lifting, he isn’t require to do much more. Foy is the ace in the hole, depicting Janet as Neil’s equal as well as his soulmate.
The supporting cast is equally as strong. So many actors from blockbuster fare are given a chance to show exactly how talented they are – the likes of Kyle Chandler and Shea Whigham, and especially the wonderful Jason Clarke, who imbues Neil’s friend and colleague Ed White with the subtle emotion he seems to effortlessly bring to all his roles. Meanwhile, Corey Stoll‘s turn as Buzz Aldrin is refreshingly spiky.
By the time the moon landing arrives – in incredible style as the grainy imagery makes way for high definition moon rocks, locked off cameras and an incredible soundtrack – you’ve almost forgotten that the first step is what the story was all about. Because of course, it isn’t. Not here. It’s merely the footnote in a deeply emotional story.
There’s something incredibly unique about First Man. It’s a big budget Hollywood movie, but it feels so much more personal and, stylistically, it’s like jumping into a painting and marvelling at the brush strokes. With yet another soundtrack from Justin Hurwitz, it’s close to moviemaking perfection.