Space travel has been a preoccupation for Filmmakers, almost since Cinema’s invention. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) amazed audiences of the time. Its invention and depiction of new worlds set a precedent for science fiction as a genre; one that has continued to push the boundaries of what’s possible on-screen. But as grand and expansive as science-fiction tends to be, it is almost always under the guise of, ‘looking outwards, to look inwards’, and as the ‘Man’ in the title of Damien Chazelle’s film suggests, that’s exactly what it does.
Everyone knows the famous line that accompanied man’s first steps on the moon, but perhaps far less of the man that said them, and by the time they are uttered in this film, they carry an extra sense of gravitas. First Man has garnered ludicrous criticism from members of the republican party, most notably Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, for not explicitly showing the planting of the American Flag. If these men had watched the film, or had half a brain, they’d know that a meaningless emblem is not needed to establish a sense of patriotism, for that comes through a study of someone who’s ten times the man they’ll ever be. Chosen to play this man, is frequent collaborator of Chazelle’s, Ryan Gosling, for who’s removed stoicism is perfectly suited. Gosling, alongside Clair Foy who plays Armstrong’s wife, deliver performances of great depth, and one that allows the grief that lies at the heart of this story to resonate. The fact that it is grief that forms the emotional core of this film however, must go down as a testament to Chazelle’s cerebral ability as a filmmaker. Despite the enormous scale of the story he is telling (and the equally enormous expectation it carries), Chazelle opts to keep his frame tight. For any given shot in this film, the camera is probably 5 feet closer to its subject than you’d expect. As a result, the scenes of domestic disquiet, filmed on 16mm, feel incredibly claustrophobic. At times I found it a bit too claustrophobic, but the conviction with which Chazelle implements his creative decisions is admirable. For it is from this conviction that a meaningful visual symmetry in the later space shuttle scenes can be established. Not to mention the breath-taking expanse of the lunar surface captured on IMAX 65mm, a payoff from which would not have been possible without the cinematic restraint that precedes it.
In an interview with ‘The Guardian’, Chazelle correctly notes that “this was my first time doing something that wasn’t directly tied to my own life experience”, but you wouldn’t know it. First Man is a tender yet exhilarating film that pays homage to one of mankind’s biggest icons.