Based on the book 'First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong' by James R. Hansen, this film directed by Damien Chazelle looks into the life of the astronaut and the legendary, successful, space mission Apollo 11, that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
The narrative begins from 1961 in the Mojave Desert in California, where a test aircraft almost goes devastatingly awry. And from thereon, it tracks Armstrong's professional and to some extent, personal life over the course of the 1960s, covering his recruitment into NASA's Gemini programme and the long series of triumphs and tragedies where the lives of not just fellow space travellers but close friends are lost.
By the end, it is clear that Neil feels obligated, almost destined to reach the moon as a way of paying respect to those who have fallen on the odyssey. And eventually, when he lands on the moon, the quest is far more personal than patriotic. And this is evident also at the near end, with the underplaying of the controversial hoisting of the American flag on the surface of the crater.
While the tale is fascinating, its pacing is a bit disappointing. The narrative is painstakingly slow, despite the first act jumping around to establish the inciting moments. The graph works occasionally, but it definitely leaves the narrative scattered as it introduces characters all over the place.
Ryan Gosling gives a compelling performance as he slips into the shoes of the enigmatic and dispassionate Neil, who is attempting to strike a balance between his ambition and relationships. He is understated and subtle in his display of emotional strength, which comes from the pain he endures with the loss of his young daughter.
He is aptly supported by Claire Foy as his wife Janet in a stock, supportive-but-concerned wife role. It is no wonder that as Armstrong's wife she is a nervous wreck and she essays her part from a loving to a fidgety, nervous chain-smoking woman with aplomb.
The others in supporting roles are all good and leave a distinct mark in the telling.
Visually, the film is turbulently spectacular and enthralling as it captures the rustic-ness of the era, the surface of the moon and the cramped rocket where the astronauts are surrounded by buttons and dials.
There is nothing tranquil or reassuring about the ride. While the wide-angle shots of space and the surface of the moon are stunning, the anxiousness is felt in the interiors of the aircraft or spaceflight simulator, as it is pushed to the brink of chaos with shaky, handheld camerawork.
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The tight cinematography often cycles between mission buttons, fuel display and the characters themselves. This unnerving claustrophobic experience could be a cause of complaint for a few, but then the film is essentially an experiential one and is recognizably a piece of the Auteur's work. It creates a dizzying sense of dread in the most intense and confined scenes.
Overall, watching it on an IMAX screen would definitely give you an immersive experience.