A character study of the quiet and stoic first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong might not be the most exciting subject matter for a dramatic film. Although I’m a big fan of director Damien Chazelle’s other work (La La Land, Whiplash), I personally never got round to seeing this one on the big screen. Now available for home viewing, I certainly regret not making the effort.
First Man is an adaption of Armstrong’s biography (First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong). It’s a personal character study of Armstrong himself, as well as an in depth look at the hazards and harsh realities that accompanied the US space race in the 1960s. As demonstrated throughout the movie, many test missions were carried out in the years before the actual moon landing. Unfortunately some of those were disastrous. This was partly down to the rushed nature of planning, due to the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. We also get a look at the wider political and cultural landscape within the USA at the time, which includes glimpses of unrest due to the Vietnam War, although these are all too brief.
Think of Neil Armstrong and you might think of a lucky man. He was given the privilege to be the first person to step foot on the moon in a golden age for the USA. However, after watching First Man and looking at the bigger picture, you might think again.
The film opens with a scene of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) on a solo training mission into orbit. He encounters some technical difficulties and straight away we are given a taste of the action to come. Although I previously mentioned this is a character study, that’s not to say it’s without its fair share of tremendous action set pieces. From his first test mission to the actual moon landing, multiple scenes feel like a white knuckle ride. These segments are so well done I was completely immersed. With what feels like intimate access to the NASA training programme, you really get the impression these astronauts are floating in the middle of space inside nothing more than a tin can. Things could go wrong at any moment. With potentially fatal consequences, this can be very unnerving as a viewer.
Outside the action scenes we look at what drove Neil to take on this extremely dangerous mission. A life filled with tragedy. One particular defining moment concerning his daughter is laid out at the beginning of the movie. As things progress it’s a constant touchpoint for his motivation. We also get to know some of his likeable fellow astronauts as he advances through his training. Unfortunately, he is continually met with more harrowing incidents, to the point we as viewers question why someone would put themselves through this. Yet without blatantly signposting, Chazelle manages to make you understand the reasons for continuing. And he does so incredibly well. The dangers of piloting a vessel in the middle of space can feel like respite from the pain of bereavement and loss on earth.
Handheld shaky cam is utilised throughout and gives the family scenes shot at home a documentary style feel. This type of camerawork can be divisive, but for me it worked. It helps give that intrusive feeling of observing the day-to-day life of Armstrong’s family. These sections are slow-paced and coupled with Goslings emotionless acting style, it can affect the flow of the film at times. In saying this however, they don’t cause any serious issues. In fact, I don’t think the thrills of the action highs would be quite as affecting without the lulls of the more intimate scenes.
Gosling was probably the perfect pick to perform this role. He has been accustomed in the past to playing the emotionless protagonist. Think Drive and Only God Forgives. Although First Man is a different beast entirely, the blueprint of certain character traits is clear to see. It’s an understated approach, but he still manages to do a great job of letting us know the toll these different events took out on Armstrong.
In the role of Armstrong’s wife, Claire Foy is excellent. She utilises the role to express a lot more emotion. At times she is the caring housewife. At others she is pacing the corridors of the NASA headquarters, tortured and looking for answers. She excels in every aspect. Her character is a much needed outlet and allows the audience to see things from a more relatable perspective. One example where this works superbly is a scene just before the moon landing mission is due to commence in which she practically forces her husband to sit down with their children and discuss his chances of returning. It’s agonising to watch.
Oscar-nominated areas included sound mixing and sound editing, and it’s easy to see why. The sound effects in the action sequences are so well done you feel like you are right there with the astronauts embarking on their perilous missions. Along with the actual score, which incorporates the wonderfully atmospheric “Lunar Rhapsody”, the entire film is an audio delight. I can’t remember the last time I felt so engaged with a film due to sound.
First Man is part epic blockbuster, part intimate portrayal of grief. And it’s certainly not a glorification of the US victory in the space race. Considering this a movie about a real life event where everyone knows the outcome, Damien Chazelle has knocked it out of the park once again. If you missed this one at the cinema, do yourself a favour and catch it at home.
Preferably with the volume turned up to eleven.