[Film Review] First Man (2018)

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Title: First Man
Year: 2018
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Biography, History, Drama
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Josh Singer
based on the book by James R. Hansen
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Ryan Gosling
Claire Foy
Kyle Chandler
Jason Clarke
Corey Stoll
Patrick Fugit
Christopher Abbott
Olivia Hamilton
Pablo Schreiber
Ciarán Hinds
Shea Whigham
Lukas Haas
Brian d’Arcy James
Cory Michael Smith
Ethan Embry
Rating: 8.1/10

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Wunderkind Damien Chazelle returns with an awe-inspiring (if less enthusiastic) biopic about Neil Armstrong’s landmark Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969, FIRST MAN is destined to ruffle some feathers as it coolly pours cold water on USA’s patriotic zeal (by completely omitting that historic flag-planting action is one giant bravura) and emphasizes on a personal rite-of-passage of a taciturn man’s inner process of grief, ambition and valor.

The film begins in 1961, when the Armstrong family is coping with the loss of their young daughter Karen to a brain tumor, a hammer blow that prods Neil (Gosling) subconsciously to distantiate his family, wife Janet (Foy) and their two sons. Whereas in the career front, he applies for Project Gemini and is accepted as a NASA astronaut, soon camaraderie brings him together with his fellow spacemen, Ed White (Clarke) and Elliot See (Fugit) in particular, only danger lurks at every corner and turn in their enterprising project to first land on an uncharted extraterrestrial territory, for which both Ed and Elliot would lay down their lives, among others.

Chazelle and his screenwriter John Singer make sure that every assault of setback only hardens Neil’s resolution, through his worm’s-eye views of the omnipresent moon whenever he looks up at night, to his flinty expressions whenever bad tidings catch him unawares, Gosling’s central performance exudes deliberately muted decibel of emotional register, we are beholding an ordinary guy doing something extraordinary, who keeps his own counsel most of the time (whose subliminal anxiety can only be traced through the jittery camera thrusted by DP. Linus Sandgren at every possible turn), yet Neil is guileless, outspoken and without hidden agendas, only railroaded by a bloody-minded Janet, does he sit himself down to talk to his two sons about the danger of his mission before departure.

This unconventional low-key approach angling for magnifying a hero’s ordinariness is quite bold and counter-expectation especially in a genre where hyperbole, rhetoric and flaunting have been chronically inked in audience’s preconception, although Foy is deployed to amp up the volumes with her fiery assertiveness and bluntness, transcending a hackneyed hausfrau role into a screen firecracker (this reviewer will not be surprised if she steals an Oscar nomination while Gosling misses one).

Certainly this method of portrayal is another sticking point to divide audience, in the event, we are more affected by Neil’s humility and sangfroid than his achievement and struggles (all its trimmings are considerably dialed down to a minimum, Space Race is only alluded to and Neil’s mission-or-obsession attitude pertaining to his feat is never elucidated), which gives this picture a hard-earned humanistic edge over its more overly exhilarating peers.

In terms of its visual and sonic flair, Chazelle and co. has accomplished something more than remarkable, entwined with Justin Hurwitz’s polyphonic music cues (with noticeable inclusion of theremin and Moog synthesizer), the film’s ‘60s filmic texture is robustly palpable in reconstructing the events in the terra firma, including the vespertine drabness of the family’s residential anonymity; when the lunar sequence finally arrives, we are suddenly overpowered by a total silence in the vacuum of space, even Neil’s first step seems so inconsequential or surreal when one’s senses are shrouded in this eerie unworldliness. Then finally, FIRST MAN re-emphasizes that it is more about the “man” than the significance of being the “first”, when Neil leaves her daughter’s bracelet on another planet, a closure he has been looking for ever since the bereavement.

Prevailing on accuracy and authenticity, Chazelle’s FIRST MAN merits its pyrrhic win in attending to a well-worn template of story-telling with an uncharacteristic guiding light, and most eminently for its sublime sobriety in bringing about a great man’s inarticulateness to the fore.

referential entries: Chazelle’s LA LA LAND (2016, 8.6/10), WHIPLASH (2014, 8.7/10); Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF (1983, 8.1/10).

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