Ranking: #101/111

Director: Damien Chazelle (USA)

Genre: Historical Biographical Space Drama

First Man is an epic account of the birth of the space age in America. The moon shot was a superhuman goal and the film methodically recreates the rawness of the effort it took, focusing on the viewpoint of Neil Armstrong, who is played with discipline and strength by Ryan Gosling, the main star of the film. 

The film is slow-paced, assiduously avoiding the temptation to mythologise or indulge in melodrama. The camerawork is respectful, understated and yet intimate. There is a gradual, careful build up to the climax of the moon landing, all with a realism bolstered by an underlying humanism. It is such a memorable true story that there’s no need to embroider. I also like the quasi-documentary look; it feels sincere and authentic. First Man is an honest appraisal of the pioneering spirit at the dawn of the Space Age, as seen mostly through the calm, steady eyes of Neil Armstrong.

Despite Chazelle’s documentary-like, objective tone, the movie is utterly memorable. The director and his team were more than equal to their task of recreating the history of NASA’s great collective achievement of landing humans on the Moon and then bringing them safely back home.

At the same time, the film evokes the immense stresses and strain of pushing both the astronauts being trained and the boundaries of space technology so hard in America’s bid to win the Space Race. And we see the impact of this mounting pressure on Armstrong’s wife and children. We also see the tragedies and setbacks in Project Gemini and Project Apollo on the way to the final triumph. The director balances the scenes of Armstrong’s personal life well with the sequences depicting the intense training leading up to the historic Apollo 11 mission of 1969.

The imagery at times is high-powered, reflecting the grandeur of early spaceflight, with some magnificent outer space cinematography. The lighting for the shots in the interior of the space capsule is beautifully done. I found the scenes of the descent to, and landing on, the Moon in the Eagle to be mesmerising and true-to-life.

First Man is a marvellously structured work of cinematic art which faithfully portrays the turbulent, but adventurous, birth of America’s Age of Space Exploration.