FIRST MAN (2018)

  • Date: 12/10/2018
  • Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke
  • Director: Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was astounding. I didn’t like “La La land” as it was just not my type. “First Man” for me will fall somewhere between the two films but will definitely be inclined more towards “Whiplash” than “La La Land”. Chazelle brings us an episodic account of the life of Neil Armstrong as he loses his daughter, applies for the Gemini program, has a tough time coping with the deaths of his colleagues around him and finally taking that small step for “man” that would prove to be a giant leap for “mankind”.

Chazelle doesn’t approach the film as a generic biographical feature but instead takes a more artistic and intrinsic approach by looking at a lesser number of events through a more sensitive lens trying to dwell deep into the heart and mind of the man in question. The film effectively toggles between his grueling training at NASA and his interactions with his wife and children at home. Armstrong is never presented as a self-sure and heroic individual who would walk in slow motion with ceremonial music in the background towards a rocket (does happen once…chuckle! chuckle!). Instead, his character is approached as a real man who is weighed in by the death of his daughter, his inability to ignore the deaths of his colleague with whom he shares a bond and also the fact that he is afraid that he might not come back alive from his mission.

Just before he leaves for his final mission, His wife literally forces him to sit his 2 sons and explain to them the gravity of the job that he is about to take. He approaches the matter in a peculiar manner as he hardly has any convincing answers for the kids. He is just as comfortable with them as he was during his press conference. But he does put his point forward and he does so in a very blunt manner. He even leaves with nothing more than a peck of a kiss to his wife and never turns back. It’s hard to explain in words the power of these little sequences. One has to experience it first hand to understand it. It is a fact that these sequences will have different impacts on different people.

We all know how the story of Neil Armstrong would go and yet Chazelle is able to deliver a tense and suspenseful film that really takes itself to a whole new level in the last 20 minutes. I attribute this quality of the film to its terrific editing, exceptional buildup and some of the best space exploration and flight sequences that I have ever seen. Yes! It does beat “Gravity” and “Interstellar” by its sheer rawness and on your face feel.

As Armstrong and his teammates enter the pod, I could actually feel the claustrophobia and uneasiness of being stuck in that position and being tied to the tail of a rocket and dispatched to space. The cinematography is exceptional in these sequences. The camera is mostly handheld and this film could be used as a lesson to learn how to shoot handheld and not give the viewers a headache. This is easily some of the most realistic portrayals of space ever. An equal amount of care has been taken to shoot the sequences that unfold on earth and that makes “First Man” a film that is uniformly brilliant in terms of visuals.

Ryan Gosling is well suited for this role. He is an actor who enjoys playing brooding characters and whether or not Armstrong was that, he is portrayed here in that way. Gosling is effective, charming and believable in a role that demanded a lot of care, control, and subtlety. More than Gosling, I was blown away by Claire Foy who plays Armstrong’s wife. In a de-glam avatar —- playing a character that spends most of her time worrying about the well being of her husband, keeping the children at peace, coping with the death of her daughter and showing a poised exterior to the world media, Foy knocks it out of the park. The camera pans on her face and lingers there extracting every ounce of the expression that she gives out to let us peek into her mental state. This happens a lot. She speaks less and emotes more. That incidentally is also the case with Gosling and they both complement each other wonderfully.

The film ends with two sequences which really made me moist-eyed. The first on the moon and the next after Armstrong returns and meets his wife for the first time. These two sequences are so warm and put in at such beautiful moments that one and all will feel the warmth of it. The background score which is sprinkled all across the film pops up at the right moments and elevates your already activated emotions.

“First Man” is not devoid of entertainment but it is also not a film for one and all. It demands the attention of its viewers and expects them to try to connect to the characters at an emotional level. If one is ready to do so, there are plenty of rewards for the taking. For those who are unable to, this film may end up being drab and boring. But even those viewers will not be able to ignore the last 20 minutes of it in which they too will be blown away.

I loved “First Man”. It is a different kind of biographical film. It is very cerebral and emotional in nature which makes it that much more affecting for those who are intrigued by it. It is also the kind of film that deserves multiple viewing to soak in its content and performances, not to mention the terrific visuals. A must watch.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)        

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