First Man has vivid, luminous cinematography, but it’s hard to say what it’s really about

It’s hard to discern Damien Chazelle’s motive for making this Neil Armstrong biopic, his first film since La La Land.

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Gimmickry has proved commercially advantageous for the director Damien Chazelle. His 2014 debut, Whiplash, was snappy and severe, as though the character of the sadistic jazz tutor who gave the movie its kick had also been in charge of the editing. Its follow-up, La La Land, was a rather smug transposing of 1940s-style Hollywood musical conventions to a 21st-century setting. If there is a gimmick in his third film then it’s far less flashy in nature. From the bone-rattling opening sequence of First Man, Chazelle resolves for the most part to keep the camera either nose-to-nose with, or behind the eyes of, the movie’s hero, resisting the temptation to marvel at his achievements from afar.

That hero is Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling in his second film with Chazelle after La La Land) and the challenge for First Man is to bring suspense and dread to a mission that we already know to have been a success. It does this not only by quantifying the human cost of Nasa’s lunar missions between 1961 and 1969 (those who died, or whose lives were irrevocably damaged, along the way) but also by trapping us in the astronaut’s perspective. In those sequences when Armstrong is heading for the stars, the approach is so immersive on a sensory level – cacophonous sound design, juddering cinematography verging on the abstract – that it almost compensates for the void at the film’s core.

The writer Josh Singer has form in the area of unexceptional screenplays based on real-life events (The Post, Spotlight, The Fifth Estate) and his work here, adapted from James R Hansen’s book, is the film’s weakest element. In the absence of insights into the famously reserved Armstrong, the picture nominates parental grief as a motivating factor in his determination.

He and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), lose their daughter to a brain tumour, despite Armstrong’s painstaking research into her condition and treatment. As the child’s coffin is lowered into the ground, he looks up at the afternoon sky and sees the chalky communion wafer of the moon staring back. Asked what the purpose of the mission might be, he expresses the hope that it will “help us to see something we should’ve seen all along”. The enormity of space becomes a means for one parent to confront grief and cosmic injustice, as it was in Gravity.

As the film picks its way through the failed missions that preceded the eventual successful one, Armstrong is shown to be isolated, and not only in the G-force simulator or space pod. At home he is shot within the wooden frame separating kitchen from dining room, or in the orange glow of his office at the end of a darkened hallway. This is a taciturn, buttoned-up figure, and Gosling certainly nails the repression convincingly enough, even if he doesn’t suggest much of a mystery worth untangling. Addressing his sons on the eve of one of the most momentous days in history, Armstrong behaves as though he’s at a press conference, telling them coldly: “We have every confidence in this mission.”

Despite the gentle double-meaning of the film’s title (a twist, perhaps, on “First Lady”) there isn’t an awful lot for Foy to do other than widen her eyes and emote, and generally try to bring to Janet a depth not present in the script. She gets to berate Nasa officials, calling them “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood”, though the outburst is less than persuasive, and no amount of huffing and puffing can disguise her marginal role in the action.

First Man is technically accomplished, with vivid, luminous cinematography by Linus Sandgren, though it’s hard to say what it’s really about – the script has a stab at Armstrong’s motivation but what’s Chazelle’s? Wistful scenes in the family’s garden play like out-takes from The Tree of Life, and lip-service is paid to the countercultural voices of dissent embodied by Gil Scott Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon” (“I can’t pay no doctor bill/But Whitey’s on the moon”). Like Armstrong himself, Chazelle can’t wait to get back in the space capsule each time, and with good reason. Only there does the film, and the man, achieve lift-off. 

First Man (12A)
dir: Damien Chazelle

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain