First Man review: Hot on the heels of runaway box-office and critical success – as well as Oscar-winner – Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling for a very different feature; a film based around the lunar space landings and, more specifically, the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.
First Man review [TIFF]
Gosling is Armstrong, who we meet in the film in the middle of an intense test mission of a spacecraft designed to take its passenger to the edge of the Earth. The mission goes well, but Armstrong is distracted, which we later learn is due to the health of his baby daughter, Karen. His NASA co-workers are also concerned, but a personal tragedy, which occurs in the opening ten minutes, focusses the young astronaut’s mind and he’s put forward to work on a new Gemini program, one which is designed in stages to take a man to the moon for the very first time. Chazelle’s film documents this journey, from its conception in the early 1960s, through to the actual landing just before the turn of the decade, all told from the perspective of Armstrong and his close family.
The film is full of amazing performances. As well as Gosling in the lead as the titular first man, we have Claire Foy in another superb turn as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, and the likes of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas amongst his NASA peers and superiors. The ensemble is perfect, the screenplay by Josh Singer historically accurate to the tee, and Chazelle’s direction expert, jaw-dropping and supremely intense in places. It is another gear shift from the filmmaker’s previous work Whiplash and La La Land, two music-fused films that won over audiences around the world. It is apt that his new film has quite the soundtrack too, the sound design a standout and such an important element to proceedings. Chazelle has also reteamed with his frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz for the score, again oh-so-excellent, the composer himself coming off recent success with two Academy Awards won for La La Land.
Related: La La Land review [TIFF 2016]
The film does feel a little long, the journey to showing the actual landing taking well over three-quarters of the running time, but Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer’s film is so detailed that this is warranted. It is also the reason why this is absolutely the definitive Neil Armstrong/ first man on the moon movie, and every bit as good as it can be – which is still, really, really good.
First Man is another example of still a relatively young filmmaker expanding his horizons, opening up to new worlds and challenging himself with something much bigger than what has come before. It is a film that shows maturity in him, and from Gosling too, while Claire Foy nearly steals the show as a character more than just the cut-to worried wife at home.
Mesmerising, totally engulfing stuff and truly one of the best films of its kind ever committed to film.
First Man review by Paul Heath, September 2018.