By Arnel Duracak
There is something tantalising about space exploration and its place within cinematic history. Across the ever-growing pantheon of science-fiction space films — ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) — the sub-genre continues to bring about new entries that seek to excite and inform. Take Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018) for instance: A globally known story of man-finally-meets-moon that is bent to the point where it becomes a biographical drama about grief and loss. It offers a new lens on a familiar story without ever losing the sentiment behind its historical significance.
The plot itself centres around the build up to 1969’s Apollo 11 mission whereby Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) alongside his team — comprised of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) — ventured to the moon and made contact. Within this build up is a deeper look at Armstrong himself as he deals with the death of his daughter, the deaths of fellow astronauts, his relationship with his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy), and the expectations of a nation. On the surface, the film embodies all the values of excellence and triumph that come with the idea of being an American, but at its core it’s a telling look at the human condition.
The opening sequence thrusts the audience into a life or death situation that has disaster written all over it. A space pod jolts and spirals out of control, plummeting towards Earth and subsequently, pulling back out into space. It’s a sequence cobbled together from the memorabilia section of the Museum of Films With Space Crash Openings, but its ten or so minutes work in establishing the film as an uncontrollable, uneasy two-and-a-half-hour ride. There are moments of respite in the intensity that follows, as the pacing gradually shifts from this controlled flow, to a rattling of space-pods and shuttles by virtue of sound-bridges and abrupt straight cuts.
From there, Chazelle establishes the theme of enclosure. He utilises space (pun not intended) to evoke a dreaded sense of claustrophobia, subjecting his audience to tight areas/environments that work in conjunction with shaky, hand-held close-ups for added anxiety. Unlike the wide, all-embracing, colourful shots of La La Land (2016), Chazelle opts (nearly always) for a tighter frame: he sucks the air out of the shot and channels the zeitgeist of dread that came with the Space Race period. The meticulous production design works in furthering this sense of enclosure through various inner sanctums: the quarantine room/chamber, Armstrong’s office, the space pod. This production design utilises these settings, the texture of their materials and their contrasting features to propel Armstrong’s characterisation and further his physical and mental isolation. From the set design to the overall visual grandeur, the film works closely with its setting to capture the danger of venturing into the unknown.
When it comes to performance, Ryan Gosling’s methodical acting sees him play Armstrong as a victim of circumstance, a man so haunted by loss that his suffering feels perpetual. He contorts himself and is emotionally distant from his family and peers, but embraces emotion in seclusion. Chazelle provides Gosling with the room to delve into the deeper moments of recollection through multiple long-takes and a static frame. There’s a moment at the beginning of the film, following the death of Armstong’s daughter, where Gosling retreats into a room with her bracelet and breaks down. Here, Chazelle asks the question of “can you?” to which Gosling’s response is “of course I can”; the director-actor relationship is strong, and it is evident that the two trust each other enough to take Armstrong’s character a step further than the one-dimensional embodiment of the idealised American. (If Gosling’s performance is anything to go by, then First Man will be powering its way through the Academy Awards). The supporting cast are also equally committed: Foy is nuanced and compliments Gosling’s own intricate character; Jason Clarke plays the warm, supportive Ed White in a sound fashion; and Stoll’s Aldrin has just the right amount of screentime for a character that is never short on speaking his mind.
First Man strives to ascertain how an individual copes under extreme pressure. Much like Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) gruelling teachings in Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014), there is this overbearing cause that clamps down on the protagonist and ushers him into a place of fear and uncertainty. For Armstrong, the celebratory feeling of being the eponymous ‘First Man’ is in direct contrast to the feelings of loss and grief that ultimately leave him a ‘Lost Man’.
Chazelle also deviates from the melodic embellishments of his musical features and opts for a much darker score, one that is masterfully composed by frequent collaborator Justin Horwitz (La La Land, Whiplash). Horwitz manipulates the sound through a variation of progressively heart-racing crescendos, sound bridges that cross between serenity and intensity, and a multitude of matched visual and sonic rhythms during moments where the non-diegetic score is absent. Space is a place with no sound, and by gradually introducing the intense score to the already intense feel that comes with the absence of sound, Horwitz is able to heighten the feelings of dread and sudden death.
The closing sequence initially feels like closure, but it has trauma bubbling just beneath. Once Armstrong lets go of his daughter’s bracelet – dropping it into a crater on the moon – a sense of fulfilment to the father-daughter strand is rectified but a hole of uncertainty is left regarding Armstrong’s mental state. In the closing sequence, Armstrong bears the burden of the film’s title as opposed to wearing it as a sign of triumph. He first-handedly experiences loss; he’s the first to answer for any failures as an experienced astronaut/pilot – even if they’re beyond his control – and he’s the first person to carry the hopes and dreams of hundreds of millions of people in his journey to the moon. It is no coincidence that he is a man who is represented as singular. He’s detached from reality and is the backbone of the whole Apollo 11 mission, never living more than a minute on the screen as a man free of solitude – the title alludes to that.
In this gripping tale of one man’s struggle with loss, the woman trying to make sense of it all, and the defining moment in space exploration as we know it, Chazelle has managed to muster up a biopic that does justice to a difficult period in Neil Armstrong’s illustrious career. First Man showcases Damien Chazelle’s range as a director as well as the cost of striving for success (and will unquestionably be vying for Best Picture).