Some films you watch, others you experience.
Damien Chazelle’s biopic on the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, is one of the latter. This incredibly immersive account of the Apollo 11 mission puts the audience in the co-pilot’s seat for a claustrophobic and exhilarating trip into the stratosphere and beyond.
It’s also an intimate look at the man whose one small step made history on July 20, 1969, played with stoic intensity by Ryan Gosling. First Man is all about the man – rarely leaving Armstrong’s orbit, it’s an insightful and respectful portrait of an individual poised to make history, or die trying.
Covering the nine-year period that culminated in him stepping onto the grey lunar surface (spoiler alert!), the film gets off to a sobering start with the loss of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter to cancer, which will continue to haunt him throughout a journey that involves strenuous flight simulations and docking manoeuvres, further tragedy and triumph.
First Man is a film of staggering verisimilitude, with handheld camerawork creating the sense of watching found-footage during the vertigo-inducing spaceflight sequences, while adding a voyeuristic quality to the more personal moments within the Armstrong home. Moreover, the production design is outstanding, from the authentic-looking 1960s aesthetic and vintage tech, to the lo-fi look of the visual effects.
The Gemini 8 sequence is an absolute stunner, with exterior shots kept to a minimum, the sound design capturing every shriek of stressed metal, and the focus trained on the interior of the capsule, where Armstrong’s eyes dart anxiously over every screw and rivet of its ‘tin can’ construction, and strain to discern the spiralling space beyond the tiny viewports.
There’s no denying the fact that First Man is Oscar bait, and will likely be nominated in all the major and technical categories. But it’s as far from the glossy and sentimental Hollywood blockbuster it could have been as the Earth is from the moon, thanks to a filmmaker with the right stuff to deliver a definitive account of Armstrong’s story.
In cinemas: October 11, 2018
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Directed by: Damien Chazelle