Film review: First Man is a thrilling dramatisation of US-USSR space race
Damien Chazelle's taut take on the space race and 1969 Moon landings is a gripping tour de force, with compelling central performances by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, writes Damon Smith
ACADEMY Award-winning director Damien Chazelle takes one giant leap for immersive, nail-biting film-making in this thrilling dramatisation of the space race between America and the Soviet Union.
Based on James R Hansen's official biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man shoots for the Moon and touches down beautifully by placing us alongside astronauts in their claustrophobic modules or next to nervous Nasa staff as they propel mankind into the great unknown.
Handheld camerawork, unobtrusive special effects and dazzling sound design leave us stranded hundreds of miles above terra firma in a similar fashion to Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, at the mercy of new-fangled technology and luck.
The tension is almost unbearable.
Chazelle masterfully encourages us to hold our breath and bite our nails down to the cuticle with bold visual flourishes and understated, powerhouse performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as the husband and wife at the epicentre of the 1969 lunar landing.
The ensemble cast, which includes Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Ciaran Hinds, counts down to heartbreaking emotion, reminding us of the incredible bravery of pioneers who sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of a brave new scientific dawn.
First Man is a tour-de-force of technical brilliance, including editor Tom Cross, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who added Oscars to their respective mantelpieces for their collaborations with Chazelle on Whiplash or La La Land.
Josh Singer's finely calibrated script follows Neil Armstrong (Gosling), his wife Janet (Foy) and their boys Rick (Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett) through the triumphs and setbacks of Nasa missions during the 1960s, culminating in the Apollo 11 launch which secured a place in history for Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas).
The film chooses a chronological trajectory, sketching Neil's close working relationships with Nasa chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke), who becomes the first American to walk in space.
Tragedy casts a long shadow over the Armstrongs. The couple struggle to cope with the death of their young daughter Karen and then the family shares the burden of grief when the Apollo 1 mission ends in disaster.
"We need to fail down here so we don't fail up there," coolly asserts Neil.
First Man is an out-of-this-world experience that will be a serious contender for glory in next year's hard-fought Oscars race.
Gosling subtly yet movingly conveys the suffocating grief, which follows Armstrong to the surface of the Moon, and Foy is compelling in a smaller supporting role, refusing to accept that the brilliant minds of Nasa have everything under control.
"You're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood," she rages. "You don't have anything under control!"
Chazelle, on the other hand, is firmly in charge of every sparkling frame.
FIRST MAN (12A, 141 mins) Drama/Action/Romance. Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Pablo Schreiber, Ciaran Hinds, Luke Winters, Connor Blodgett. Director: Damien Chazelle
Released: October 12 (UK & Ireland)