Set over the course of a decade, First Man tells us the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he joins NASA and becomes the historic first man of the title.
A critical early scene shows us Armstrong with his young daughter who is dying of cancer. We are shown his love for her but crucially also an insight into his personality. Via the research and journals he keeps and his reaction to her death we see that he is academic, controlled, obsessive and keeps his emotions pent up within himself. Ryan Gosling is perfect for this role. He is the master of minimal movement and facial expression allowing the director to impart feelings by what is happening around him.
On the flip side of that we have Claire Foy as his wife Janet. Her role is much more emotional and animated and together it gives us a real insight into the pressure that Armstrong’s obsessive professionalism placed on their family unit.
Damien Chazelle’s third film after Whiplash and La La Land is so far sounding similar to his astonishing opening two films as a story of obsession. But where it is very different is in how it is filmed and scored. First Man is slow, methodical and claustrophobic. Everything is shot in close to the characters, giving us a slightly unnerving tense feeling. The flights feature minimal CGI and are disorienting affairs that really make you feel every rattle and vibration caused by rockets. The score as a result is something on the back burner most of the time. Justin Hurwitz who has provided music for all of a Chazelle’s films so far is much more restrained here as the film opts to focus on the sound inside the cockpit rather than a rousing musical overture.
The result is stunning film making.
Although I will accept that there will be some who will find it too slow or not factual enough. This is about one mans personal and professional challenges with the backdrop of one of the most significant technological breakthroughs of the 20th century.