First Man Blu-ray Review

First Man

I recall watching the music video for a Queen song (Heaven for Everyone) in my youth, where footage was incorporated from an old black and white movie about landing on the moon.

I liked the song but it was the film footage which had me most transfixed.

It turns out the movie was Georges Méliès’ silent classic A Trip to the Moon from 1902.

Much like astrophysics, cinema has come a long way in the intervening century: with everything from The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 to Gravity and The Martian, the fascination with space-travel remains.

One hundred and seventeen years after Méliès’ film, the topic of lunar exploration is tackled by another Frenchman, Damien Chazelle, adapting the James R Hansen’s book about Neil Armstrong.

First Man covers the period from 1961 to the moon landing in 1969, with Ryan Gosling taking the role of Armstrong.

The film opens with pilot Armstrong being grounded following several mishaps during testing runs.

We then see him and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy) care for their baby daughter Karen who is undergoing medical treatment. Armstrong keeps track of all of Karen’s symptoms and progress but she dies shortly thereafter.

Karen’s death seems to be the reason Armstrong applies for a NASA initiative, Project Gemini, which concerns space exploration.

Over the next eight years, and as Armstrong progresses his way to the moon landing, we witness key events, as well as further tragedies, and see the intense pressure experienced by both the pilots and their families.

The film culminates with the lunar landing in 1969; despite the fact we know this is coming, tension is maintained along the way.

This is an unusual follow-up for Chazelle, who has already made two very different movies in Whiplash and La-La Land; or maybe he is behaving like any director would if they were given the green light to make whatever movie they want.

It’s a bold choice and pays off. The film features the standard space-based footage that you would expect, but there are unexpected artistic flourishes which provides a nice counterbalance.

The climactic moon landing, for example, builds up to a crescendo and then feels oddly subdued; but it all works, and works well.

The moon itself is teased throughout the film and to great effect, feeling both like an impossible goal to pursue, and an oppressive presence in so many lives.

Foy is terrific as Janet who is feeling increasingly alienated by, yet highly concerned for, her husband, whereas Gosling gives a far more internalised performance. His Armstrong is almost blank but feels appropriate for a man who is initially running from his grief and, later, seems to be solemnly honouring fallen comrades.

Familiar faces such as Shea Whigham, Kyle Chandler and Ciarán Hinds round out the cast. The latter two are good as the men heading the projects, who need to dispassionately make decisions about human lives as well as tax dollars.

On this note, the film makes an important reference to the wider political climate of the Space Race, and how this fed into the Civil Rights movement and general economic unrest of the sixties.

Overlaying all this is a memorable score by frequent Chazelle-collaborator Justin Hurwitz, conjuring tension and awe at the right moments.

Would George Georges Méliès approve? You’d like to think so.

Conor Brennan

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