Wed. Oct 28th, 2020

2018 Venice Review: ‘First Man’

Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle’s First Man (Photo by Daniel McFadden / Universal Studios)

“I see the Moon
The Moon sees me
Down through the leaves
Of the old oak tree
Please let the light that shines on me
Shine on the one I love”

The Moon mission wasn’t just a piece in the puzzle of the Cold War, with the United States of America trying to best the Soviet Union in the space race. If that had been the case, the most famous live transmission in the history of television would only have been watched in the household of Dallas, Chicago, New Orleans or Seattle. The Moon mission was watched all over the world, across the five continents, because it was the most extraordinary mission ever undertaken by man. “We don’t choose to go to the Moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said JFK in one of his most recognizable speeches.

NASA spent years designing the mission that mankind had always dreamed of. The exploration of the space around us became essential to understand man’s place in the universe. The spirit of every man and woman, every child on this Earth was with the spacemen of the Apollo 11 when their feet stepped on the Moon, and feel the words of Neil Armstrong (“A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind”) as their own.

Yes, Neil Armstrong. He’s always been talked about as one of the heroes of the 20th century. How could it not be? He’s been the first man to set foot on the Moon’s surface. He carried with himself hundreds or thousands of years of dreams, he had the eyes and hearts of the entire world set on him. But was he really a hero? Did he want to be a hero? This is the question that Damien Chazelle asks himself and the audience with First Man.

Neil Armstrong was a husband, a father, a friend, and then an astronaut. He suffered the most devastating loss a father can possibly experience, and he spent his life trying to overcome the guilt and the grief that loss brought. He saw the Moon as his promised land, the loneliest, quietest place ever known by man where he could finally come to terms with his grief and let go of the pain caused by his loss. Damien Chazelle filmed the Landing sequence without for a single second focusing on the planting of the American flag: First Man is a movie about Neil the man, played with stoic sensitivity by Ryan Gosling at his career best. Gosling brings a spark in Neil’s eyes, a spark of sorrow that will break people’s hearts. His Neil Armstrong is a man almost fatefully overcome by guilt, burdened by responsibility, hardened by life. He sees the Apollo 11 mission as an endurance test on his strength, as if he wanted to get closer to death, therefore closer to his beloved Karen. A famous Italian song says “You have to die a little in order to live fully” and this expression perfectly applies to Neil Armstrong. He had to go to the Moon: he owed it to himself, to Karen, he owed it to his wife Janet and to Ricky and Mark, his other two children, raised in a family where the memory of the lost one is ever felt but never spoken of. The complications preceding the launch of the Apollo 11 are not deterrents. If anything, they become further incentive for Neil to embark upon that mission, making him fully aware that he can only start a new life if and after the mission is successful.

First Man is a masterpiece because it finds the perfect balance between the telling of an intimate personal story and the portrayal of an age of social turmoil, where the Vietnam War enraged and black people in a supposedly post-racial America protested the funding of the mission when so many citizens could barely get by (“I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon”). First Man is a masterpiece because it is better than the sum of its incredible parts. Claire Foy is not just a supportive wife: she’s the heart and soul of the Armstrong household, the person who holds it together and keeps it from falling apart. Her scenes with Ryan Gosling reveal a special chemistry between the two actors, a chemistry that lingers throughout the 140 minutes till the devastating last scene. First Man is a technical marvel that will make your jaw drop with stunning views of space, that will haunt you with the one of the best music scores of the last few years. It is an absorbing family story and a spectacular space adventure. It is a masterwork from one of the most exciting young directors out there. It is the best film of 2018.

The review was for the Venice Film Festival and translated from its original Italian.

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