After the mixed response to last year’s Downsizing, the 2018 Venice Film Festival’s opener has kicked the fest off with as much spectacle as possible. First Man should prove to be far less divisive than Alexander Payne’s odd sci-fi comedy, a conventional but thrilling biopic that tackles one of humankind’s greatest achievements, the first moon landing. It’s a surprising third film for Damien Chazelle – who has until now made his already prestigious name with lightning-fast musical drama masterpieces Whiplash and La La Land – but, for the most part, his trading in of the arts for the sciences is a smashing success.
Key to this smooth transition is the fact that Chazelle can continue to explore his favourite theme – obsession. The Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) of First Man is a deadly serious, deeply professional, and fanatically devoted pilot and engineer, his commitment to the Apollo 11 mission overriding all his other concerns and responsibilities. The quest to land men on the moon was so far out of the realms of possibility that only the most fervent true believers could push through the doubts and disasters to achieve it, and First Man doesn’t shy away from the consequences this mindset had on Armstrong’s home.
Still in unresolved mourning for the death of his infant daughter, Armstrong gets ever worse at communicating with his two sons, his pre-Apollo goodbye to them playing more like a press conference than a sincere family chat. Previously framed with a dreamy haze akin to Malick or Lowery, the Armstrong home is suddenly filmed in the more objective, semi-documentary style that Chazelle had previously reserved for the dingy and cold NASA labs. He and cinematographer Linus Sandgren never let their camera be constrained by any one style, flitting from impartial fly-on-the-wall realism to shuddering, terrifying immersion whenever the story demands it.
It’s this immersion that gives First Man its greatest asset. The actual flight scenes are all astonishing, from an opening low-orbit mission that thrums with intensity throughout to the fateful Apollo 11 landing itself. Breathtaking visuals and flawless sound design put you right in the cockpit with Armstrong and his fellow pilots, capturing the feeling that death is never more than one minor mistake away. Watching the Apollo 11 rocket rise above the mountains of smoke from its ignition is an awe-inspiring sight, and knowing how the story ends doesn’t dull the impact of the thrill of triumphs or the frustration of the failures.
As far as awards-friendly biopics go, First Man doesn’t throw out too many surprises, but strong character work and solid performances across the board ensure that this isn’t particularly debilitating. Gosling nails the embattled exhaustion and stunted emotional expression of a man who is constantly in voluntary mortal danger, and though it isn’t as wonderful a performance as his work in Nice Guys or La La Land, it should put him square in middle of the awards conversation. Claire Foy is on equally good form as Janet Armstrong, generally more held together than her volatile husband, but also capable of fearsome fury.
Of the stacked supporting cast, it’s Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll who stand out, as mission commander Deke Slayton and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, respectively. First Man gives everyone involved in the missions the credit they deserve, and this even-handedness extends to the film’s overall worldview. Josh Singer’s script (Chazelle gets no writing credit here, a first for him) places the film in its Cold War context, but never resorts to jingoism. Interestingly, there is no standard biopic text epilogue, a subtly moving final scene saying everything it needs to about what comes next in Neil Armstrong’s life.
In lacking the musical energy of Whiplash and La La Land, First Man fails to quite reach the dizzying heights of Chazelle’s previous output, but that’s not to say that it isn’t still a pretty fantastic film. On a technical level, you couldn’t ask for a better, more viscerally exciting look at early space travel, bolstered by an upbeat yet mysterious score from Justin Hurwitz, and it’s a timely, comforting reminder of what people can achieve when they’re willing to expand their horizons.