It’s no surprise to hear that Damien Chazelle’s First Man is the Marmite movie of 2018. This was perhaps to be expected when it was announced that the Whiplash and La La Land director was to helm the project, with First Man as much a film about grief and loss as it is about Neil Armstrong taking man’s first steps on the moon.
Ryan Gosling plays the dead pan Neil Armstrong, a man burdened with grief when his daughter dies at a young age, viewing a potential mission to the moon as an opportunity at redemption. This becomes more and more apparent throughout the movie to the point where little else matters to him other than the mission at hand.
Given the main character’s insular nature, it’s perhaps just as well that Claire Foy, playing Janet Armstrong, is there to portray that emotion that is so lacking from her husband, non more so than his final evening with his family in which he would be expected to be exchanging emotional goodbyes but instead is more of a press conference with him and his children.
The movie certainly revolves around the loss of their daughter and the effect it has on its main character, perhaps dramatically so, but it makes no secret that Armstrong’s escape from Earth is his metaphorical redemption.
Where the movie will, and already has, split opinion is the balance it has between a standard space film, filled with exciting set-pieces and grand shots of the great beyond, and a deep, emotional character driven drama. Basically, if you’re expecting Apollo 13, think again.
On the whole, Chazelle does a great job of balancing the two. The movie runs much deeper than simply a mission to the moon, focusing very much on its main character and discovering his inner demons and what he is looking to overcome and ultimately as a character study, it is well judged.
That said, there is plenty to admire visually, particularly the Apollo 11 takeoff scene – boosted by its soundtrack, which its excellent judgement is to be expected of a Chazelle movie. A theremin accompanies the scenes in space perfectly signifying the loneliness in space which we will have heard many times in these types of movies, but also aligning perfectly with First Man’s themes.
Given the character’s nature, it’s almost like Gosling is unable to really show his full capacity and is at times overshadowed by the brilliant Foy. But First Man’s attention to the main themes makes for an incredibly interesting film and one that is not just about space travel which may work against it. Instead, there is a lot more deeper subjects attached to this one, making it a unique, but engaging film.