American films

First Man film review: La La Land director’s Neil Armstrong story is one of year’s best films

Damien Chazelle’s film about the first moon landing, starring Ryan Gosling, strikes a great balance between drama and action. Its meticulous attention to the details of space travel in the 1960s makes it one of 2018’s best films

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 6:06pm

5/5 stars

Damien Chazelle follows up his best director Oscar win for La La Land with a thrilling re-enactment of mankind’s giant leap.

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Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as Neil Armstrong, the grief-stricken astronaut who spearheaded Nasa’s mission to the moon, but it’s the film’s impeccable balance of visceral heroics and tender family drama that makes First Man one of the year’s best films.

It is somewhat ironic that humanity’s greatest foray into the unknown has become one of our best-known stories. From a young age, children learn about the accomplishments of Apollo 11 and its crew, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who cannot recite Armstrong’s apparently improvised “One small step …” refrain.

Nevertheless, Chazelle imbues his film with genuine tension and fear by focusing, not on the training programmes and nurturing of “the right stuff”, but by highlighting the personal loss and sacrifice experienced by Armstrong, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and the other astronaut families.

The scenes at the Armstrong family home feel ripped from Terence Mallick’s The Tree of Life, soft-focus snapshots of domestic love and loss that appear like memories, or faded photographs held close to Armstrong’s heart as he puts his life on the line.

The film’s period detail is meticulously reconstructed. Chazelle goes out of his way to emphasise how rudimentary the technology was, banks of dials, switches and levers, powered only by mathematical theory and giant tanks of rocket fuel.

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Space travel is seen not as glamorous, but rather noisy, claustrophobic and unremittingly terrifying. But through beads of sweat and bouts of nausea, First Man includes some breathtaking sequences of celestial beauty, not least the climactic lunar landing, best witnessed in all its Imax glory.

An impeccable supporting cast that includes Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas adds gravitas and authenticity to Chazelle’s endeavour, which also finds time to tap into the political turmoil that surrounded the mission. First Man is a compelling portrait of human sacrifice and success. Forget the space race, this year’s Oscar race begins now.

First Man opens on October 11

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