Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash), the youngest recipient of the Best Director Oscar, reunites with Ryan Gosling and music composer Justin Hurwitz to deliver a heart pounding emotional drama. This spiritual nail-biter alternates between Armstrong’s life on ground and in space to understand the man behind the name, fame and glory.
Chazelle’s storytelling masterfully juxtaposes Armstrong’s grief, thrill and uncertainty in a way that commands your unflinching attention. From nerve-racking space turbulence to deafening silences, Justin Hurwitz’s melancholic yet liberating score stirs the soul.
Based on James R. Hansen’s book, the film is essentially a cathartic human drama and not a commercial space adventure as one would assume. Chazelle doesn’t focus on the thrills of space travel, though it is an integral part of the film and its spectacular climax. Instead, he stares into the soul of Armstrong as he grapples with the loss of his daughter, friends, co-pilots and the things he didn’t say when they were around. The astronaut turned to his work not only for his passion for space exploration but also as his only source of healing. More than his space missions (Gemini 8, Apollo 11), Chazelle romanticises his elusive personality, lonely existence and realistic approach to life. He makes you look at Armstrong the way he looks at the Moon.
With a cold, steely gaze, Gosling portrays his stoic character with remarkable restraint. Be it Armstrong’s frustration, inner turmoil and suppressed emotions, he lets his eyes do the talking. Claire Foy plays Janet (Armstrong’s first wife) with equal maturity. Her confrontational scenes with Gosling exude her character’s quiet resilience. She shows why Janet was much more than a supportive wife. Watch out for the scene where she points out the irony of her life to a friend, referring to her husband’s ‘disorienting behaviour’. “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life. He seemed stable unlike the other boys. I wanted stability.”
First Man is immersive, intimate and meditative. It unfolds at its own pace and there lies its beauty. Also, characters seldom resort to words to express themselves, which makes it all the more riveting.
Some films stay with you for eternity. This one transports you to the moon and back and is as special and introspective as the man it intricately studies but rarely reveres. Brilliantly crafted and hypnotic from beginning to end, First Man is a stunning piece of work that leaves you thinking about it, way after it’s over.