Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy
F.I.V.E. star rating:
F. Form: 5 / 5 [style, structure, technique]
I. Impression: 3 / 5 [impact, relevance, provocation]
V. Vision: 5 / 5 [audacity, innovation, perspective]
E. Experience: 5 / 5 [enjoyment, engagement, delight]
TOTAL: 90 / 100
Director Damien Chazelle’s previous two films, WHIPLASH and LA LA LAND, are movies I remember by sound before image. Mention WHIPLASH and I hear crashing cymbals and the pitter-patter of sweat beads, mention LA LA LAND and I’ll begin to hum “City of Stars” as jazz music fills the night air. It is surprising then that Chazelle for his latest film has made a movie that is all about silence, sadness and absence. In space, no one can hear you weep.
A biopic about Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and the mission that made him the first man on the moon, may not immediately call for what Chazelle has crafted here. Space mission movies tend to go for a grandiose approach but it’s that tilt away from the obvious that makes this movie intriguing. He chooses to focus on Armstrong’s introversion and grief. The movie opens during one of his test flights as he reaches the tip of the Earth’s atmosphere, finding an unearthly silence.
As he descends back to base, the ship bounces and goes back towards the emptiness of space. This nail-biting scene is mostly wordless, Ryan Gosling’s face is hyper-focused and expressionless and save for the rattling of the ship, it is unnervingly still. This sequence is sharply contrasted by the scenes of domestic bliss that follows it but the happiness is cut short when Armstrong’s young daughter dies from an illness.
We’re barely past the first act and already death hovers close and it never leaves. As his fellow astronauts die one by one during the various stages of the mission, it begins to take a toll on his family. Claire Foy who plays his wife, looks at her husband, wondering if he’s the next to go. The movie flies by events. There is very little exposition, only showing us what is necessary. This intensely first-person perspective ensures that the audience sees what Armstrong sees, delving deep into his state of mind - a feat in itself considering his closed-off, unsentimental persona.
So focused is the movie on interiority - both emotionally and physically - that even during space flights, the camera is rarely placed outside a ship, resisting the temptation to lay bare the full glory of space. There is a recurring shot of a small window in the ship where we see only specks of space: complete blackness, a scatter of stars, the soft blue contours of Earth, the blinding beams of the sun, adding to the claustrophobia while intensifying the loneliness of space exploration. It is thrilling and melancholic - the vastness of space eliciting wonder and the kind of quiet you can’t find down here on Earth.