Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hinds, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Christopher Abbott
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…a down-to-earth and frequently nail-biting piece of cinema.
Outer space on film has always had a sense of collective ambition to it. Rarely as simple as just being about one person or even a group reaching for the stars, it’s a narrative that usually aims to show humanity at its most collaborative, with everyone pulling together to do extraordinary things among the celestial orbs. While Star Trek may lay claim to that in the more fantastical parts of our culture, this mindset largely traces back to those famous words from Neil Armstrong; the giant leap for mankind that he and the Apollo 11 crew took over fifty years ago.
First Man’s visuals and the writing, rather than sticking to loftier ideas of what this leap could mean for the human race, aim for raw, almost uncomfortable intimacy. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Battle Of The Sexes) keeps a very tight and claustrophobic proximity to the actors, letting every whimpered tear and dreading glance plaster itself onto the screen.
Of course, that’s what you get when things are deceptively placid; during the space-oriented moments, the combination of handheld camera work and pristine use of lighting gives a Stargate-sequence-from-2001-into-its-own movie vibe that Chazelle and Sandgren were aiming for. While this method brings the occasional headache, it ends up fitting the chaotic nature of the scenes.
As for the writing, it takes an unshakeably personal look at the story from Neil’s perspective, sometimes literally as aided by the point-of-view camera angles. The depiction we get of the legendary astronaut is a man who has seen death’s handy work far too often, who knows the risks that he and his colleagues are taking. A man who understands how much is weighing on this mission all too well. It is through that lens that we see this story, informed by the American/Russian space race but more intently fascinated by the personal drive at the heart of that race. Not only does this give the film solid emotional grounding throughout, it also delves into the ultimate why of this entire venture. With all the dangers involved, all the public scrutiny as to how practical this all is, and all the worry that these men will not make it back to Earth, why would someone put so much at stake? Because any giant leap involves taking risks, ones that not everyone is willing to take.
First Man shows Damien Chazelle doing what should be impossible: turning a well-worn piece of history into a down-to-earth and frequently nail-biting piece of cinema. Creating tension in a story where most people already know the ending is an impressive feat, and it does justice to the legacy of a true pioneer.