First Man could easily become a handbook for some of our filmmakers of how authentic biopics should be made without emotional manipulations, unnecessary heroism, or forced adrenaline moments of glory. Through the film, Damien Chazelle tells a completely grounded human tale of a man who found a place in history more because he was destined to take that one small step, rather than being the natural first choice for a historic mission of such nature for mankind.
The brilliance of the film lies in the fact that through the story of conquering moon, it actually takes us on a journey of Neil Armstrong conquering his voids of life, his occasional failures, his haunted world of silence and his heartbreaks. It becomes brilliant cinema because the film is so much more than just being a fast paced, high energy astronaut thriller. Its dives deep into the emotional and psychological trials and turbulence of the man, the impact that it has on his middle class family of mid 60s, and hence on his/their choices of life. The story is about challenging one’s endurance to take on physical stress that can potentially counterbalance loss and associated emotional trauma, and eventually seeking personal closures in life.
Chazelle is a master of creating poetry on screen, whether it is as lyrical as the musical romance between two struggling artists of La La Land, or as rhythmically exhausting as the teacher student drama of Whiplash. He doesn’t let go off that here as well, and chooses the language of chaos – intellectual, physical and emotional, as the screenplay beautifully oscillates between the unpredictability and unknown fears of a space mission and the insecurities and anxieties of an everyday close knit family. It is no surprise then that some of the best moments of the film are not just about the dangerous thrills of the exploratory mission or its eventual success, but also about the moments of sincerity, composure and mutual understanding shared by the loving Armstrong couple who are in this journey together through thick and thin; whether its the loss of their own child, or sensing the risks of irreplaceable loss associated with Mission Apollo.
A confrontation sequence between Janet and Neil followed by a family round table just before the final mission is going to remain my favorite from the film, that beautifully establishes the strength that Janet brings to the entire family. It also smartly projects the irony of life that one can be so much more unprepared to face far tougher questions from the family rather than the politically motivated inquiries of the media, and then can choose to answer both with the same escapist superficiality satisfying no one and devastating oneself from within. Equally overwhelming is the final moment of triumph of landing at moon, more because of the sentimental impact it makes by remaining toned down on dramatic pitch and working its ways through the understated emotional connect. Chances are that it could get you choked for a bit – it is truly an out of the world experience.
A space mission like Apollo demands multiple teams to collaborate perfectly by the millisecond to get the much desired success, and Chazelle successfully steers his ship of entire cast and crew to seamlessly synchronize this masterful experience with similar precision. The soundscape that plays perfectly to transform from the claustrophobic turbulence of leaving gravity to the deafening silence of the outer space void (top notch sound design and background score) is no less captivating than the musical extravaganza we experienced with La La Land, and the cinematography to capture the cramped spaceship or the unlimited expanse of space is in perfect conjunction with the same. The closeup shots of Armstrong’s eyes to capture his range of emotions from fear to confusion to awe to ecstasy through his various moments of truth will haunt me for a very long time. Them along the multiple fleeting images of a coffin going down, or an empty cot, or an impression of the first footstep or a bracelet losing itself to eternity are perfectly edited in to the narrative to create beautifully deep and memorable cinematic moments. For all the dazzle it brings live on screen, First Man becomes a well deserved front runner to sweep out a lot of technical category nominations at the Oscars, including best Picture and Best Director.
As I think that Claire Foy would definitely secure the Best Supporting Actress nomination for her masterful performance as Janet. The way she perfectly displays her vulnerability and her strength at the same time through the varied range of expressions from insecurity, fear of the unknown, warmth, affection to a core of steel is sheer joy.
It is Ryan Gosling and his sensational performance however that makes First Man such a holistic first grade experience . He is the perfect choice to play Neil Armstrong and completely internalizes the emotional turmoil and conflicts of the life of Armstrong through all its highs and lows. He underplays the inwardly reflecting complex character with striking composure thereby getting us completely involved in his emotionally engaging journey. This is certainly one of his finest and most matured performances to date, and to me that will remain a fact even if this act somehow doesn’t secure him the Best Actor nomination at the Oscars unfortunately.
In summary then, all the technical and performance aspects of the film work together in perfect harmony to make First Man one of the most enthralling and immersive biopic experiences at the same time. It builds it character by expanding its ambition to explore much denser and complex emotional spheres than just the vacuums of outer space. And that is where it takes that giant leap of becoming sheer cinematic delight while narrating a superlative human story of ultimate triumph!
Truly spellbinding, or should I say space-ta-cular in every possible way!