Wednesday 3 October 2018

Film Review: First Man

After saving jazz (twice) and winning an Oscar, director Damien Chazelle turns his gaze skyward for a soaring biopic of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. 

First Man sees Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) reunite with La La Land leading man Ryan Gosling for a film that follows Armstrong through the decade leading up to the infamous moon landing in 1969. Claire Foy, hot off the heels of her Emmy win for Netflix's The Crown, plays Armstrong's suffering wife Janet, with a supporting cast of talented character actors – Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll – playing the likes of astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Ed White.

Gosling is great as the emotionally-repressed Korean War veteran turned astronaut; he plays Armstrong with a quiet humility and a tight, clasped drive that keeps past traumas – such as the death of his young daughter – under lock and key. This isn't a flashy performance from Gosling, but it is one of his most compelling.

In contrast to the glossy, sweeping romanticism of La La Land or the boiling, vein-popping anger of Whiplash, First Man sees Chazelle take a decidedly colder and more technical approach, to the point that it feels remiscent of recent Christopher Nolan joints – right down to the stoic male hero and the underwritten female lead (but more on that later).

The Nolan parallel is most evident in the 'action' set pieces that follow a shuttle launch or a test in the Gemini or Apollo programs. Chazelle rams home the intensity of rocket science by loading them with noise and bombast; think Interstellar's infamous docking scene.

In these sequences, the camera shake feels like it could rattle the teeth out of your skull; the sound is layered so that every airy whistle, electronic beep and mechanical groan can be heard through the wall of noise, as the rocket thrusters propel it through the atmosphere. The camerawork gets up in your face, often pivoting so the audience is seated in the claustrophobic shuttle as it squeaks and creaks its way upward – again, my mind immediately leapt to the intense aerial acrobatics and dogfights in Dunkirk.

Then the film might cut away or leap ahead to another point in time, later in Armstrong's life, back at base or sitting on the porch at home. The blaring wall of sound washes away and is replaced with quiet anxiety of the next test. First Man really nails this contrast of big and small, loud and quiet – and the two extremes pull the audience through the years as we follow Armstrong through the soaring ups and crushing downs.

This film also brilliantly captures the macro and the micro; on the one hand it's a tale of human endeavour and bravery. It peels back to drink in the enormity of the task in front of not just Armstrong, but NASA and the American space program as a whole. But at the other end of the spectrum, it's a very touching and intimate portrait of a man whose name is etched in the history books and known by so many.

Forgoing jingoism in favour of a heartfelt finale that is more about the man than mankind as a whole, Chazelle refuses to go full Michael Bay during the triumphant final act – given the subject matter, First Man could have been the same chest-thumping we've seen umpteen times before. The restraint is a joy to behold; one man stood against the lunar surface, drinking it all in, taking a moment to pause and reflect. This isn't your typical crowdpleaser; rather, a touching and compelling homage to a man, not a myth.

Cinematography comes courtesy of La La Land DP Linus Sandgren, who paints the film with inky blues and rich, bright oranges. The opening sequence that sees Armstrong rocket through the atmosphere and witness the glowing curvature of the Earth is gorgeous. Another Chazelle collaborator – Justin Hurwitz – serves up the score, which is one of the best of the year, complete with whirring theramin from Samuel Hoffman's 1947 'Lunar Rhapsody'.

That said, First Man is not without its missteps. Though she acts the part brilliantly – with more than a couple Oscar showreel moments ready and waiting for next March – Foy isn't given an awful lot to work with. Granted, the film is more concerned with Armstrong than his wife, but their relationship isn't given the focus it deserves. Being an actress playing an astronaut's wife is as thankless as actually being an astronaut's wife it seems, as Chazelle once again steers the film towards restraint – only here it feels oddly frustrating or emotionally stunted rather than streamlined. When given her moments to shine, Foy drums up more than her fair share of commanding curtness or exasperation.

The Verdict: 8.5/10

Some may be put off by Chazelle's controlled, almost cold, approach to his stirring subject matter, but First Man is a compelling and well-crafted biopic that is equal parts intense and tender.

First Man is in cinemas across Australia from October 11. 

1 comment:

  1. When I first read about this and saw trailers I wasn't sold on it, but reviews like these make me want to check it out.



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