Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton
Adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is faced with two distinct challenges. Firstly, how to build suspense and tension when the audience already knows of the successful outcome of the Apollo mission, and secondly, how to make a contemporary audience appreciate just how audacious and inconceivable an undertaking that mission was back in 1969. By taking a more personal approach to this story, and reinventing the cinematic representation of space travel, it manages to achieve both to great effect.
After going through a parent’s worst nightmare, Neil (Ryan Gosling) and Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) see potential for a fresh start in Houston, where NASA is searching for pilots with engineering experience to join Project Gemini, the exploratory missions intended to lay the foundation for the Apollo mission to the moon. President Kennedy had publicly declared America’s intention to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, but for the team at NASA, led by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), who are responsible for making it happen such an achievement seemed a long way off. Every Gemini mission was a stepping stone, each having a specific objective that had never previously been accomplished but needed to be worked out if Apollo was to be successful. While to the increasingly impatient outside world the space race was little more than a wasteful ego trip between two superpowers, for the pilots and engineers, and the community of families who surround them, the stakes for each individual mission are life and death.
Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, arguably the most ambitious and audacious technological achievement in human history and the defining moment of the American century. However, rather than framing this account in flag-waving patriotism, First Man, as its title suggests, seeks to tell a much more personal story. After rising to prominence with Whiplash and La La Land, two films united by their focus on the world of music, First Man seemed like an odd change of direction for Damien Chazelle. However, they were also connected by their exploration of the dogged single-mindedness and determination of a character to achieve their goal, and it is this idea which carries across to First Man, this sense of striving, albeit in a more stoic fashion for Armstrong.
But nor is First Man interested in rose-tinted hero worship. He is a man carrying internalised, unresolved trauma. When being interviewed for a place in Project Gemini, he is asked if the events of his past will effect his performance, he responds honestly, “It would be unreasonable to expect that there wouldn’t be an effect.” But while we are encouraged to understand everything in the context of Armstrong’s personal tragedy, Chazelle, Gosling and screenwriter Josh Singer allow us to have a somewhat conflicted relationship with him. We admire his stoicism in his uniquely stressful work environment, but when he brings that attitude home, our sympathies switch from him to Janet. Claire Foy has a real impact as Armstrong’s wife, making the most of what could have been a two dimensional worried-wife-waiting-at-home role, instead making her the only person who fiercely will not tolerate Neil disappearing into his work and himself.
For while Neil’s journey is largely an internal one, he is not alone in the world. The astronauts – particularly Neil, Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) – are shown to be a tight knit community. Their families all live together in the same neighbourhood. They socialise together and support each other. For the families, every mission requires acknowledgement that a husband or father might not be coming home. These are strong relationships forged by a common goal and a unique shared experience. The exception is Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who is rather unsympathetically portrayed as undiplomatically ambitious. But his ambitiousness shines a light on the other side of the astronaut’s relationship. As much as they are partners in this venture they are also rivals, because only three of them are going on the mission to the moon, only two of them will actually set foot on the moon, and only one of them will be first.
It is often cited that the computing power that got Apollo 11 to the moon was only a fraction of that which exists in a modern smart phone, and First Man confronts us with how incredibly analogue this whole process was. We see Armstrong calculating trajectory with a pad and pencil as his command module drifts in orbit. First Man consciously undermines the etherial way in which space travel is traditionally presented. Instead it is sweaty, cramped and noisy. We are often positioned within the claustrophobic cockpits, immersing us within the astronaut’s perspective, with our only sense of the enormity of space being a restricted view through a small window. These feats of human engineering feel like buckets of bolts as the vibration of launch almost shakes the image off the screen. These pilots and engineers are pushing on through real uncertainty, and it is frightening. As Janet angrily puts it to Slayton: “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control.”
First Man is a beautifully crafted film, from its cinematography to its performances to its score. But when it all comes down to it, the most impressive thing about it is that it doesn’t play out exactly as you expect it. Even those moments that you know are going to feature prominently in the story – “That’s one small step for man…” – are realised in a way which makes you consider them from a different angle and, in doing so, appreciate the enormity of the achievement afresh.
Review by Duncan McLean
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