I think Damien Chazelle is one of the few directors working to understands the inner workings of how film sequences can hypnotize you. Whilst watching La La Land or Whiplash I always feel as though I am in an isolation chamber where it can just be me and the big screen. The framing of scenes and the smooth flowing narrative puts you in a kind of trance that isn’t too close to dream state but just enough to glue you. I’m explaining this because watching First Man, that hypnotic state is felt stronger than ever, with part coming from watching the life of a science icon and part from his harrowing story.
First of all, let’s eliminate the obvious, Ryan Gosling dominates the screen as Neil Armstrong, much like he does in his other roles, and gives us an intimate performance of a man who is appears to be on emotional lockdown. In the film, the character is more orientated to getting the job done and letting rationality define who he is. This is a very personal story, so you need that emotional attachment to the character and Gosling delivers it perfectly. Claire Foy stars as Neil’s wife Janet whose role is to show the strain and stress the events of the film affect the Armstrong family.
There something more to the story however than the characters or the moon landing, First Man is a story of how strong Neil must be during a decade of constant loss. A lot of characters close to Neil, friends and family, end up dying and it tests how much of an emotional brick wall he can be when he is chosen for Apollo 11, a mission where he could potentially end up the same way. During a scene where he has to explain that he may not come back to his children, he speaks to them as if he were giving a press statement and not as a father. The film throws funeral after funeral at Neil Armstrong, begging the question why would he accept a life-threatening mission when he could end up the same way as his friends? When he accepts the mission, his character becomes more courageous in the eyes of the audience.
What stands out is how visually unique First Man is whilst undergoing a variety of format changes. There are sequences shot in 16mm, 35mm and 70mm IMAX yet the visual look mirrors the 1960’s setting. the very eagle-eyed people amongst audiences will be able to tell that First Man is certainly a lot grainier than films that have come out this year and that the focus is very soft drawing out the vividness of colours. All in all, it creates the impression that you are a true observer intensifying the scene hypnotism. This true observer feeling is also seen in the films many first-person shots (especially in space sequences) and handheld shots, adding a realist sensation to the film.
The space scenes are a great way how the film juxtaposes sounds, during the lift-off of rockets, the film gives us the full intensity of what it is like to be inside travelling through the earth’s atmosphere, you hear the rattling of the metal, alarms going off etc. but once the rocket breaks earth’s orbit, the film cuts all sound to simulate the vacuum of space. The silence acts as a release from the intensity but lets up also appreciate the wonderment of space and the moon.
Not all the juxtaposes of the film are going to work though, for instance, I found the shaky cam technique of the space mission a little over-intense. I do understand the need for it though, as the film is going for a gritty exploration of Neil story, they want to make every scene feel as close to the true events as possible. Though, the amount at which the camera shakes is going to become a toll on the eyes which doesn’t serve adequate justice to the juxtaposition.
The film is going to suffer from a lot of assuming audiences. First Man is about the man, not the mission and this is where it may lose a lot of interest in audiences. There was a recent controversy that the film did not involve a scene in which Neil and Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag on the Moon which riled up a lot of American patriots. Part of me did want to see that scene but looking at the films focus on the man and not the mission, it would have become a distraction from the focal topic. Apparently, Clint Eastwood was in line to direct instead of Chazelle, and who know how over the top patriotic it would have been, there’d be an American flag at every opportunity, so I am glad the Chazelle could maintain the patriotic levels.
There are a lot of things that will go right when seeing First Man, you just must get used to the uniqueness of the film. It breaks a lot of assumptions but what it replaces them with is an equally impressive if not greater take on the space race. I have a lot more admiration for Neil Armstrong, not just for being the first man on the Moon, but the emotional hardship and mishaps that he had to endure to get there. By treating his journey to the Moon as a sort of treatment for overcoming his losses, the character oozes humanity even if he is an emotional brick wall.
Final Result: 8/10 – Very Good
(for the man, not the mission)
Have you seen First Man? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
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