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First Man review – an intimate account of an extraordinary story

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Verdict: Both a cinematic marvel and a sensitively delivered human story.

First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the events leading up to him becoming the first man to walk on the moon on the Apollo 11 mission.

It is a story we are all familiar with. The line “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and the photo of the American flag planted on the moon’s soil have become ingrained in history and pop culture. Yet, what Chazelle does is give us a complex and human-oriented account of the story that has, surprisingly, not been told on screen before.

It begins with Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) losing their young daughter to cancer. Gosling gives a subtle and solemn performance as the serious and emotionally closed-off Armstrong. Yet, it is Claire Foy that gives the most powerful performance of the two, as the worried and similarly stoic wife who is left to care for the children while her husband is off to space. The film emphasises the mission’s toll on family life in a scene where Janet urges Armstrong to explain to his children that he might not come back alive from the moon. In another scene, we see the recently widowed wife of one of Armstrong’s deceased colleagues, now having to raise her children by herself.  

Chazelle certainly highlights the risks and hazardous nature of the Apollo 11 mission. As the film goes on, Armstrong loses more and more colleagues through sometimes only minor oversights, making it seem as if survival is only an issue of luck. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren opt for several shaky and handheld close-up camera shots to illustrate the danger of spaceflight. The viewer is exposed to the claustrophobic and unstable inside of the various rockets and spaceships, which look more like tin cans than actual spacecrafts you would want to use to send a man to the moon.

Some close-up shots of Armstrong gazing up towards the galaxy through his space helmet are reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The homage is even more obvious through the use of a Blue Danube-like symphony playing during the audience and Armstrong’s first gaze at the galaxy. The lunar sequence of the film was filmed with IMAX cameras, and I was lucky to experience it in its full glory: the shots of the moon’s surface are stunning.

Whiplash dealt with an aspiring world-class drummer and La La Land with an aspiring movie star and an aspiring Jazz pianist. In First Man, Chazelle continues to explore the theme of obsessing towards a goal, even when reason and logic tells us not to. It tells the story of a man who, after some personal tragedy, is determined to fulfill his mission even when death is a likely outcome. In the end, it provides a humane account of one of the most well known events of the 20th century.

First Man lands in cinemas on October 12th.

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