Damien Chazelle is proving to be a reliable film maker. La La Land and Whiplash are outstanding achievements in their respective genres. Both show a diligence and passion in aspects of style and substance. And now he comes out with First Man, a biopic unique in its approach and look to the story behind Neil Armstrong. It’s concerns the career and private life of Armstrong leading to the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The training is physical and emotional as he test drives rocket planes to their limits and is placed on revolving machines to simulate space travel. He’s among eager astronauts being selected for the mission to the moon. At home he is with a wife and two sons. And we learn that his daughter had passed away at the age of two.
The film accentuates a raw unpolished quality. It isn’t trying to be technologically impressive nor does it marvel at the grandeur of space travel. More noticeable are corridors where mission applicants await their interviews quietly, or a training vessel that looks old and used up. Flight sequences are clunky experiences – the action scenes are from a point of view inside the ship which create a feeling that is claustrophobic and unsafe. At times shaky camera work render these moments inconceivable. The sound of metal is rickety. Lighting is dark. Then on the outside, space is dead silent before the final probe landing on the Moon which is visually grey and dull. Chazelle backs this sequence with classical music. Gosling plays an impassive note for Armstrong. Focused on the outside, he is a quiet disposition that at times is difficult to predict. Claire Foy plays his wife Janet as a responsible mother who is capable of placing her foot down as needed. Jason Clarke is Ed White, fellow astronaut and friend of Neil. And Corey Stoll is Buzz Aldrin who likes to speak his mind regardless of what others feel.
The film is an effective depiction of an earlier time that focuses on an individual, while capturing the preparatory events for the memorable Apollo mission. Armstrong and his pain from the loss of his daughter are a driving force behind a personal mission. The attention to both private accounts and surrounding occurrences, care of the screenplay by Josh Singer, stretch the film to a run beyond the average two hours. Occasionally the pace takes its time. Gosling isn’t given too many emotions to stretch or work with. But it is a moving, coherent film with an understated power and an understanding for human behavior.