First Man tells of the moon landing as experienced by Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling). Coming in at a staggering two hours and 20 minutes, the movie marks the second collaboration between Gosling and Chazelle, who team up once again with composer Justin Hurwitz, who also worked on La La Land (2016) and Whiplash (2014). The movie also stars Claire Foy as Janet Shearon. Foy is already being tipped for her first Oscar for her portrayal. Gosling on the other hand delivers a strangely cold and lifeless performance as Armstrong.
Chazelle’s direction is once again stellar, with ageing filters applied to suit the period, and clever camera technique employed to fully submerge the viewer. With this in mind, First Man is not all too suitable for claustrophobics as much of the action takes place in tiny rickety shuttles and helmets.
The film follows Neil’s life both at home and extraterrestrially, from the tragic death of his daughter through to both moon missions. It ends with Neil and Janet’s reunion through the door of a quarantine chamber, which is an interesting, if not a confusing, place to end. Given that the story focuses so much on Armstrong’s home life in the lead up to the Apollo landing, to conclude without getting to see the aftermath is not entirely satisfying.
As to the score of the film, Justin Hurwitz knocks it out of the park again with First Man’s soundtrack. Silence is used in equal measure to sound and music and the effect is beautiful, allowing the audience to fully appreciate just how quiet space really is. It’s impossible not to make a comparison with La La Land and there are striking resemblances between the main theme in First Man and that of ‘Planetarium’. Also impressive is how realistic the presumably heavy use of green screen is, with it being difficult to work out not only what is computer generated and what is real but also what is footage of the actual moon landing itself. It’s unusual that a movie is able to astonish us with how far ahead of its time it is whilst simultaneously depicting the past so authentically.
All of these positive factors contribute towards another hit for Chazelle, and yet First Man seems to fall flat without any clear cause. Whether it’s the sheer length of the movie or Gosling’s necessarily slow yet robotic performance, something in this film stops it from fitting together. Whilst it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what is holding back the wow factor, perhaps it’s best for audiences to decide for themselves.
Image: Universal Pictures