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FNE at Venice 2018: Review: First Man

2018-08-30
First Man, dir. Damien Chazelle First Man, dir. Damien Chazelle

VENICE: Director Damien Chazelle makes a quantum shift with his Venice competition entry First Manafter his hugely successful, light-hearted homage to the Hollywood musical La La Land

Although on second thought it may not be such a quantum shift as it appears.  In both films Chazelle looks at subjects which have become icons of American popular culture and does it straight on not as some ironic tongue in cheek take on these subjects.

First Man is the story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and his astronaut colleagues from 1961-1969.  The film is based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong” by James R Hansen and focuses on the sacrifices these astronauts made for what was one of the most dangerous missions in history. But what drives the drama and makes the story interesting is the personal story of Neil Armstrong played by Ryan Gosling. With the outcome of the story already universally known it is the human drama of Armstrong that gives the story interest and makes it compelling viewing.

Chazelle in his director’s statement says “Before I began work on First Man, I knew the textbook narrative of the mission to the moon – the success story of an iconic achievement... but little else. Once I started digging, I grew astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the enterprise – the number of times it circled failure, as well as the toll it took on all involved. I wanted to understand what compelled these men to voyage into deep space, and what the experience – moment by moment, breath by breath – might have felt like.” And it is just this human element that Chazelle has managed to capture. 

No one viewing the film who is from the generation that remembers the landing on the moon in 1969 will ever forget the moment when Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin played by Corey Stoll first set foot on the moon.  It was an iconic event in lives around the world. 

But where the film succeeds is in bringing Armstrong to life as a person.  To succeed in the NASA world and the years of tough training a preparation Armstrong naturally had to be restrained and self-disciplined.  Emotional outbursts were a luxury that he could not afford. Gosling plays this character with great restraint in a performance where the emotions are largely interior.

Therefore the scenes where we see Armstrong’s personal tragedy as he and his wife Janet played by Claire Foy lose their infant daughter Karen to a brain tumour.  We see a man used to working as an engineer with equipment and technology dealing with a human tragedy that he has no control over and it is a very moving moment. The relationship between Armstrong and his wife and the contrast between the tech world of astronauts and his home life play out as a constant theme throughout the film.

Visually the film like Chazelle’s previous work is beautiful to look at.  He has teamed up again with DoP Linus Sandren who worked with him on La La Land.  The whole film is constantly restrained in acting, visuals and sound.  The big drama is already out there in landing on the moon so Chazelle chooses to let the story unfold and it looks like once again this talented director has a box office winner on his hands.

Credits: First Man (USA)

Director:Damien Chazelle

Cast:Ryan Gosling, Jason Clarke, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciaran Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas

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