When Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012, the entire world mourned the death of its first lunar citizen and paused to reflect on one of the most remarkable human beings to ever live. In that moment, the film industry instinctively began to make moves to remind the world of the story that defined the 20th century. Six years after his passing, having told of a much more terrestrial star in La La Land, Damien Chazelle fleshes out the story of a reclusive American hero and the personal trials on his journey to be the first man to set foot on the moon.
That most famous of men played by Ryan Gosling, anchored himself on a famed stoic sensibility, with First Man similarly keeping its heart hidden away, finding the rare times it does appear to be incredibly poignant indeed. The early tragic loss of Karen Armstrong to cancer is carried very heavily and convincingly by Gosling, as he never quite comes to terms with the death of his two year old daughter. His performance as the titular first man is one of great determination and highlights Armstrong’s personal ability, but also highlights his flaws as a father quite readily. When his pragmatic wife Janet (Claire Foy) forces Armstrong to address the possibility of not making it home to his two sons, their sit down is more of a press conference than an emotional embrace, concluding with “Does anyone have any questions?”. Foy gets slightly more to play with than the usual trope of housewife by some interesting characterisation; on their front lawn with their husbands over a thousand miles above them, Armstrong and Patricia White discuss the cons of being married to such astral men, as it is ultimately them as spouses who have to piece together broken families in the event of tragedy. Beyond small instances such as these, their roles as wives and mothers are excellently carried out but somewhat under-utilised.
“Progress in the face of catastrophe” is how senior astronaut Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) spins NASA’s mid-60’s efforts to the media, which conveniently also summarises much of First Man – as the early test flights, then the Gemini and eventual Apollo programmes are all marred with problems that are fatal and merciless. It is often forgotten given the scale of the achievement that many a life was lost reaching the moon. Director Chazelle and writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) do not shy away from this, but instead use it to highlight the incredible odds that were overcome, forming the basis of First Man‘s overall narrative; try and try again. The financial and social implications of the space race are also briefly addressed – JFK’s commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade coincides with the civil rights struggle and Vietnam War, where funds could arguably have been put to a more socially responsible use as Kurt Vonnegut argues on a TV interview.
The most obvious comparison to make is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which was minus an actual landing scene of course. Though ironically, where Apollo 13 was a disaster successfully averted and Apollo 11 an outright success, First Man is tonally far darker than its predecessor. First Man was similarly shot on 35mm to evoke the same gritty realism and nostalgic footage that gives film such a romantic vignette. From the pastel spectrum of short sleeved shirts in the obligatory NASA control room to the pitch black of space, strong colouring is a huge part of what we have come to expect from a space movie and First Man really does look beautiful on film. Much like Interstellar, First Man takes many of its cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as one key scene sees Neil Armstrong sitting in the cockpit, helmet ablaze with the reflection of control panel lights as his ship docks to the sound of a jovial waltz.
Visually, First Man pushes filmmaking to the absolute limit. The scene you paid to see is climactic and overwhelming to say the least. The wonderful thing about the moon landing is that as it was so long ago, the lone camera capturing that most iconic of scenes was so basic that there is most definitely an element of artistic licence to be taken on the big screen today. Almost 50 years later, an IMAX experience feels almost as immersive as Armstrong and Aldrin’s first steps must have been. Aiding the various analogue formats across the film (16mm, 35mm, IMAX), First Man incorporates just the right amount of archive footage as it covers the space race in the background of Neil Armstrong’s individual story, thankfully without feeling like a documentary. Justin Hurwitz returns to compliment the visuals, but his score here is far less flashy than his notes for La La Land and the use of absolute silence in key scenes is admirable, if slightly unoriginal.
As sure as the moon orbits the earth, First Man will receive countless award nominations for its sound design and visual effects, Chazelle having once more teamed up with DP Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross to craft a film that regularly shifts from claustrophobic and dizzying to peaceful and reflective, but not always when you’d expect it.