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First Man (Ryan Gosling) - DVD Review

First Man

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THE 1969 Apollo moon landing is one of the most iconic images of modern history, giving rise to one of its most quoted observations. Upon stepping foot on the moon, lead astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered the phrase “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

It’s a phrase of understated enormity that seems to have been embraced by filmmaker Damien Chazelle when it came to making First Man, his depiction of the events leading up to that moment in time.

Rather than deliver anything overtly patriotic, or rabble-rousing in a typical Hollywood triumph against the odds type of way, Chazelle has gone for something completely different and altogether more surprising. He has delivered a sombre, even insular piece that examines the true cost of winning the space race.

First Man unfolds largely from the perspective of Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) as he first overcomes a tremendous personal tragedy (with the loss of his young daughter to illness), only to commit to a dangerous space race programme marked by yet more loss.

As a result, it’s a film that confronts loss as much as it celebrates bravery. But it’s also mindful of the bigger picture too. There are several asides to the American political scene as a whole, too… a country divided between those who support the space race and those who would rather see the funds diverted to better causes.

It’s therefore easy to see why some US critics and commentators accused the film of being unpatriotic, even urging its boycott. Yet that would also be missing the point. Chazelle has fearlessly eschewed conventional simplicity and gone for emotional and social complexity.

As a result, the way his film unfolds is far from a foregone conclusion. For while everyone knows Armstrong made it, they may not have realised how many didn’t. The threat of death surrounds Armstrong at all times. And it comes suddenly to those colleagues around him.

And just as Chazelle pays tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, so too does he show the difficulties of those who prevailed. The space sequences are often shot from the POV of Armstrong, showing what he sees and thereby allowing audiences to experience his fears, frustrations and victories more closely.

First Man

It can mean that the spectacle of seeing things from a wider angle is deprived. But it lends proximity to the humanity at play. And that is a spectacular accomplishment in its own right as, through use of sound and limited fields of vision, we hear every rattle, view every shake and bump and hold our breath in all the right places.

Even the moon landing itself is under-played. Sure, Armstrong gets to mutter his immortal line. But there’s no flag planting ceremony, more a sense of relief, of quiet achievement and reflection. There’s even a sadness as Armstrong reflects on what he’s lost. Chazelle suggests that the moon walk brought the astronaut some form of closure with his daughter… a kind of inner peace. And it feels like a fitting way to end the character’s journey.

Gosling, for his part, imbues Armstrong with a combination of quiet dignity and melancholy. He is driven yet scarred, struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter while remaining a good father to his son and a good husband to his wife (played equally as well by Claire Foy). There are moments when the pressures he’s facing boil over, such as when he snaps at colleagues.

But in the main, Gosling lends Armstrong a quiet stoicism, befitting the actor’s strengths. We sympathise with him, just as we understand and root for him. It makes that telling moment of success all the more quietly triumphant – not in a fist-pumping way, but in a poignant, appreciative kind of way.

First Man is a film that rates as a thought-provoking triumph – a bittersweet dissection of heroism on both an epic and intimate level that surprises by virtue of its willingness to offer something different. It may not be the film that many might have been expecting, but it’s all the more notable for not being so.

First Man is available on digital now and on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-Ray™ and DVD from February 18, 2019 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 22mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: February 18, 2019