First Man aims for awe instead of spectacle

Gosling's Armstrong is both a reluctant hero and a man mired in grief over the loss of his daughter

By Robbie Collin/The Daily Telegraph
  • Published 12.10.18, 7:07 PM
  • Updated 12.10.18, 7:07 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Ryan Gosling in First Man A still from the film

Sunk in political bedlam at home and abroad, and repeatedly humiliated by Russia on the world stage, will the United States ever lead the world again? That is one of the questions posed by First Man, the new film from Damien Chazelle, which presents the last leg of the Space Race as seen through the eyes of Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong, the aeronautical engineer turned Nasa astronaut who would go on to win it, by one small, fateful step.

Admirers of the 33-year-old director’s two recent crowd-pleasers, Whiplash and La La Land, might be reasonably expecting a snappy, personality-driven biopic with lots of men in short-sleeved shirts waving fistfuls of paper in the air.

But First Man, which was adapted by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) from an Armstrong biography by James R. Hansen, is a very different proposition: less a slinky millennial take on The Right Stuff than John Cassavetes goes to outer space, with lived-in performances, handheld camerawork with period-perfect film grain and a colour palette full of the ochres and umbers of mid-century, middle-class American domestic life.

It centres on a thoughtful, tamped-down star turn from Gosling, whose Armstrong is both a reluctant hero and a man mired in grief, following the loss of his two-year-old daughter Karen to an inoperable brain tumour in 1962. The early sight of the young girl lying on a hospital bed beneath a huge radiotherapy rig is the closest the film ever comes to science fiction, and it is an image that resonates until the film’s skin-pricklingly staged lunar climax.

Wisely, Chazelle has opted to leave spectacle to the blockbusters and instead aims for awe — which is related, but different, and harder to pull off. The former shows you something you haven’t seen before. The latter involves showing you something you see every day from a perspective that makes it newly strange. First Man chases awe from its 1961-set opening sequence, in which Armstrong, then a government test pilot, flies an experimental X-15 aircraft high enough for the ship to “bounce off the atmosphere” on its descent.

Linus Sandgren’s camera remains in the cockpit throughout, squirrelling into any nook it can find, making Armstrong’s panic our panic, as the hull lets out unholy groans and the altimeter spins and pops. Then as his flightpath crests, the planet’s rainbow rim reflects in his visor, and his amazement becomes ours too.

There is significantly less amazement back on earth, and a lot more hard work. It would be too simple to say First Man only takes off when it, ahem, takes off: the ground-level drama is what gives the extraterrestrial parts their emotional stakes.

But there is something very methodical about the film’s route through Armstrong’s personal history: a little domestic drama involving Armstrong’s first wife Janet (Claire Foy), raising their two sons on the understanding that her husband might not survive his working week, then some crisis at Nasa when a test fails, or the Soviets make another headline-grabbing advance, then repeat.

The supporting performances are strong: Foy is rather doomed to playing a stay-at-home housewife because that is who Janet was, but the part has a bit more texture than the usual fretting-over-the-sink stereotype. Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds are brusque Nasa functionaries, Jason Clarke well-cast as another astronaut, Ed White, and Corey Stoll has fun as Buzz Aldrin, whom the film paints as a pain in the neck, but a natural at handling the press.

Armstrong himself is a congenital introvert, which is perhaps why the film leans into his personal tragedy as much as it does: it allows us to feel something for a character who lets little else slip.

It also gives an emotional undertow to the moon landing finale itself — which, it is implied, gives Armstrong the literally unearthly perspective required to process his heartbreaking loss. The less said in advance about this staggering sequence the better, other than that it crackles with eeriness and wonder, looks utterly real, and is the reason to see First Man on the biggest cinema screen you can find.

Chazelle has always specialised in virtuoso endings, and his sure hand and sharp eye brings this ambitious character study smoothly into land.