Damien Chazelle’s film, “First Man” is first and foremost, a claustrophobic film. The epicness of the story told, the United States race to land on the moon, is contrasted sharply by reliance on closeup shots and small confined shooting locations. For example, take the opening scene in which Neil Armstrong, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, who has been in Chazelle’s films before, enters the upper atmosphere in a cold war era aircraft test flight.
The scene is never viewed from outside the aircraft, but rather is entirely from Armstrong’s point of view. Every shake, every bump, every rattle from the flimsy skeleton of the aircraft is shown in agonizing and terrifying detail. Chazelle makes a point to show multiple closeups of the screws holding the plane together. This is a motif that shows up frequently throughout the films many take off and landing sequences, as if to tell the audience that the life of our hero is held in the balance by the same thing we use to hold up our bookshelves.
Things don’t get any easier from there. When finally the shaking stops, Armstrong is in space. Where, in a run of the mill film, we would see a majestic expansive shot capturing the majesty of the ‘little blue marble’ we all live on, instead, the camera remains inside the cockpit where the entire field of view is taken up by a small section of the pacific ocean or the small window that frames it. Finally, after a few moments of respite, the shaking begins again as Armstrong begins his descent.
However, when back on earth, the Chazelle, as well as cinematographer, and winner of last years Oscar, Linus Sandgren, make sure to maintain the style of the film. Even on solid ground the camera shakes. Even outdoors, the camera maintains a close up of the subjects. Because it is not just the lives of the astronauts in space that are unstable and confined, but rather their entire lives are. A plot point in the film was when a fellow astronaut is killed in a routine supersonic flight training exercise. Another is when, a fire kills three astronauts sitting on the launch pad. There is no safe place for someone living that kind of life.
In fact, therein lies the beauty of “First Man.” A good biopic mythologizes the subject, shows how great they were in life. While a great biopic, which is what I think this film is, the film serves to demythologize. It shows the flaws of the hero, as well as the flaws of his mission. It does not put emphasis on successes, while glossing over the amount of failures, and sheer amount of blind luck, that it took to get there. Instead, it shows the good as well as the bad.
This is something that Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer do an amazing job at in this film. I honestly believe it will go down in the canon of classic biopics, among the likes of “Raging Bull” and “Chaplin.”