Right from that opening sequence, this movie draws you in: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is in the cockpit of an X-15 on a test flight. Despite his face being hidden inside his helmet, you can sense his panic and it feels like you are there with him. The close-up shots give this cockpit a claustrophobic feel, and as a man who occasionally suffers from claustrophobia, I feel for him. The sounds of the engine are deafening, it’s almost like it’s going to explode; the altitude indicators flicker up, then down. Failures are unpredictable. That’s the tone of First Man; and unsurprisingly, it’s very consistent throughout the film.
This project might not seem like the first choice from director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La La Land). Directing a movie that he hasn’t written about the first person to walk the moon is an interesting risk. Interesting in the sense that this feels like a story that has been told a thousand times, but he and screenwriter Josh Singer (who also wrote The Fifth Estate <blah>, Spotlight <meh> and The Post <eh?>) add a unique, inspiring and almost tragic spin to this classic story.
Aside from the fantastic and terrifying piloting scenes, Chazelle and cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, decided to shoot most of it on 16mm and 35mm film stock – this gives First Man a grainy, documentary feel that allows the film to produce its own identity. It really stands out just before Apollo 11 makes it to the Moon since they convert from using grainy film stock to digital; an effect so subtle and seamless that the scene in which Armstrong emerges from the rocket can be compared to the transition of Dorothy coming out of her house in The Wizard of Oz. However, the use of a handheld camera in scenes, with it constantly shaking, even when barely anything is happening, felt disorientating and unnecessary.
Gosling, the master of showing little emotion, yet, at the same time, showing every emotion, feels like the perfect casting for this quiet, subversive man. His performance connects you with his obsessive quest to get to the Moon, despite all the grievances and the failures that this roller coaster ride of an adventure makes him plummet through. But at the same time, it’s almost pitiful since he is disconnected and at odds with his wife, Janet (played by Claire Foy, who also gives a fantastic performance), and their two sons, so it raises the question of whether this mission is worth it.
The film does a great job at making the run-up to the launch look scary – everything seems to be going wrong. Accidents happen in the rockets forcing them to either crash or spin relentlessly and uncontrollably when orbiting Earth, fires are breaking out, people are dying, (it almost looks like a horror film, don’t go to space, kids!) there are various protests and political issues with people wondering if this is a worthy investment (‘I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the Moon’).
It’s a shame that this fantastic film isn’t doing so well at the box office with it stumbling on its first weekend, falling behind Venom. Audiences seem generally mixed on it with menial discussions arising from it being ‘too patriotic’ or ‘not patriotic enough’. Regardless, I thought that it was a sublime, immersive experience and I’m sure that many of you will feel the same way.