The Wylde Review: First Man

Review by Alexandra Griffin

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Ryan Gosling is out of this world in Damien Chazelle’s understatedly powerful study of inner and outer space exploration. 

There is a recurring theme within science fiction of the study of human consciousness. From Silent Runnings to Gravity and Interstellar, filmmakers have used the voids of outer space as a vehicle for exploring the inner realms of the human psyche, specifically through themes of loneliness and isolation. 

As such, First Man is not so much a film about space as about grief and loneliness; the vast cosmic expanses symbolic of the remoteness of Ryan Gosling’s titular astronaut. 

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We first meet Armstrong, teetering somewhere on the brink of being accepted onto the astronaut training programme, whilst simultaneously struggling to come to terms with the loss of his young daughter Karen. His selection for the Apollo program provides him with a purpose, however the more immersed Armstrong becomes in his mission, the more he is haunted by her image. 

Crucially, the casting of Gosling is perfect. He is able to embody Armstrong’s insular detachment, whilst remaining enigmatic enough to hold our fascination. He’s seemingly adrift amidst the domesticity of everyday earthly existence, off-world and out of reach. He has a knack for staring into the middle distance with melancholy fatigue that serves to give him that not-quite-human quality.

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Chazelle, stressing that he wanted to do something “wholly different” to La La Land, his last feature (and collaboration with Gosling) ensures the film is expressly allegorical. Armstrong’s desire to escape the earth’s atmosphere is caught up with his sense of loss. The dreamlike memory of his daughter’s hair running through his fingers recurring at crucial points. The moon, which looms large in the backdrop of Armstrong’s suburban American world represents some kind of chance to reconcile his grief – made abundantly clear by a particularly profound scene towards the end of the film. 

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Elsewhere, Chazelle provides a compellingly realistic study of the nuts and bolts – quite literally – of the Sixties space race – the space modules effectively held together by a combination of experimental engineering and faith. The stark vulnerability of the astronauts’ position highlighted by the shaken trajectory of sheet metal and screws as the capsule convulses into orbit. Neither does First Man hold back on demonstrating the brutality and guesswork of those early intergalactic endeavours. People die, and when they do it’s quite shocking. The astronauts brush frequently with death – Armstrong most closely parachutes just in time out of a burning prototype Lunar Eagle on a test run in the desert. A NASA technician makes a last minute adjustment with a Swiss army knife just before take-off, whilst the Apollo team rework the maths on scraps of paper as they go. The film plays perfectly, the contrast between the alluring otherworldliness and the down-to-earth reality of what it actually takes to get there. The score – sublimely offered by Justin Hurwitz – expertly contrasts drama with dreamy rhapsody, and most poignantly, absolute silence to symbolise the isolation of being so far from home. 

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First Man succeeds through its understated execution to be a powerfully evocative study of grief, of purpose and the reality of navigating through this human existence. It balances its tension perfectly with moments that are profoundly moving. It is, as Claire Foy’s flawless Janet Armstrong suggests – out of this world.     

Like the Armstrongs’ under-stress marriage, the space vessels themselves are in constant danger of falling apart, accurately portrayed as an alarming collection of screws and rivets that Janet dismisses as “balsa wood” boys’ toys. Rather than revelling in the majesty of space travel, First Man puts its audience inside a tin can as it shakes and rattles its claustrophobic way into the sky. Like The Right Stuff, there’s no sugar-coating the spectre of death that haunts even training missions. The horrors of fiery catastrophe hang heavy over the proceedings, with the shocking loss of friends and colleagues amplified through well-judged dramatic understatement.

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Taking a lead from Lunar Rhapsody (a tune that Armstrong famously loved), Justin Hurwitz’s melancholy score incorporates the eerie, mournful wail of a theremin, once a staple of the sci-fi genre and most famously deployed by Bernard Herrmann in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here, it adds yet another note of longing and loss to a film that I found both powerfully moving and quietly profound.