Opening with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) test piloting an X-15 rocket ship so high you fear he may crash in to the orbiting Universal Logo which went past mere seconds before, Damien Chazelle’s quietly absorbing biopic is something of an antithesis to the usual stars ‘n’ stripes bombastic heroic portrayal the US space program usually receives. Instead, the focus here puts the man in the foreground while the mission is pushed to the back.
Covering the period from 1961 through to the summer of ’69, “First Man” follows Armstrong from his time as a test pilot, through the heartbreaking loss of his infant daughter to cancer, to his application to join the Gemini programme and ultimately the successful completion of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing mission.
Josh Singer’s screenplay carefully avoids romanticising or sentimentalising the events he’s chronicling and the film moves unhurriedly but never sluggishly through the years, touching on pivotal moments and key events in the ongoing cold war space race. The international diplomatic dick measuring contest between the United States and the Soviet Union is acknowledged and shown for what it was, but more in framing how the challenge of achieving the impossible tasks felt for the men and women involved (although this movie largely erases women’s contributions to the space programme outside of their role as wives to the astronauts) at the engineering and scientific frontier, far away from the conference rooms, debating chambers and seats of power.
As Neil Armstrong, Gosling delivers a strong, stoic performance, befitting a man as reserved as Armstrong’s reputation (contrasting strongly with Buzz Aldrin’s in-your-face attitude as played by a bafflingly bald Corey Stoll) while Claire Foy gets good mileage from fretting and smoking and thousand-yard staring.
Chazelle’s direction is a world away from the every-shot-is-a-hero-shot approach of “Apollo 13” and he keeps things intimate by keeping his hand-held shots tight in on the characters or constantly peering over their shoulders. There’s also a visceral commitment to showing the terrifying reality of space exploration in the 1960s. Far from the sanitised versions we’ve seen before, space travel is chaotic, frightening and cacophonous. Whether this ‘shoot for the Moon’ biopic has a chance of snagging any of the big Oscar categories remains to be seen but it’s surely a shoe-in for the sound mixing/ editing awards. The deceptively placid earth-bound scenes are interspersed with screeching, kinetic, white-knuckle sequences such as the unbearably tense Gemini 8 mission or the Apollo 11 Moon landing itself.
“First Man” serves to remind us not only how far we reached and how quickly (as Armstrong wryly points out in the face of an unimpressed Senator, we went from the first manned flight to aiming for the moon in just over sixty years) but how impressive, reckless, brave and costly it was to do so. It also pointedly reminds us of how we’re currently failing to apply the same spirit, effort and resolve to the similarly vast and seemingly intractable problems facing mankind now.