Dir: Damien Chazelle; Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Corey Stoll. Cert 12A; 141 mins
It would be wrong to suggest that First Man evokes an era of lost idealism in American life. The film (which tells the story of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing) is set during the 1960s. This was one of the most turbulent decades in US history. Director Damien Chazelle includes fleeting references to the chaos. Snippets of the Vietnam war are broadcast in the background on Armstrong’s TV. Chazelle (who based the biopic on James R Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong) acknowledges the obvious and very intense rivalry with the Soviet Union which forms the backcloth to the space race. A counterculture is springing up. We see a clip of maverick sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut decrying the enormous expense of getting a man in space at a time when some of America’s cities are in decay. Protesters are shown chanting on TV at President Johnson, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” Nonetheless, the most revealing and transcendent scene here is the moon landing itself. This is watched by hundreds of millions of people all around the globe. They’re utterly in awe of American ambition and resourcefulness. The admiration on their faces is in very stark contrast to the dismay with which the outside world looks in on Trump’s America today.
First Man is all about understated heroism. It’s affecting precisely because Armstrong (played with quiet intensity by Ryan Gosling) doesn’t feel the continual need to boast about his mission. The film is a tearjerker but a very subtle one. Chazelle reveals in just one or two scenes how profoundly the astronaut is affected by the death of his young daughter. A shot of the child’s bracelet being put away in a drawer is all the director needs to hint at the emotions roiling within Armstrong – emotions which he will rarely show openly.
Engineers and astronauts working on the space programme seem to be living idyllic, all-American lives. Their cupboards are full of Campbell’s Soup tins and their fridges are well stocked with Budweiser. Their families socialise with one another. However, they also go to funerals together. Pilots keep on dying. The spirit Chazelle captures here is similar to that among the flyers in old Howard Hawks films like Only Angels Have Wings and The Dawn Patrol, or in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Laconic machismo prevails. Whenever pilots are killed, their colleagues throw themselves even harder into their work, both to deflect the grief and guilt at surviving and to honour the dead by continuing to pursue their goals.
The wives are even more expert at hiding emotions than their menfolk. Claire Foy gives an exceptional performance as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, the one always left behind when her husband embarks on his flights. She is trying to hold the family together and to present a positive image for the photographers at times when she is terrified her husband will never return. “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life,” she notes at one stage. Armstrong does indeed seem like a stable and conventional 1960s family man, albeit one whose ambition just happens to be to fly to the moon. Chazelle continually cuts away to Foy’s Janet as she lurks at the edge of rooms in which Armstrong is always at the centre. She isn’t given many lines but Foy is able to capture her always fluctuating emotions – the strange mix of pride, dread and frustration she feels at being married to an astronaut.
There is a comical quality to the way that Armstrong talks to his children about his work in the same guarded way that he talks to the press. It is as if he is so accustomed to the cameras, and so wary of them, that he has lost the power to act and speak spontaneously.
The government may be spending millions on the space mission but the design of the rockets and spaceships is surprisingly makeshift. As Janet tells Armstrong and his colleagues in one of the movie’s most memorable lines, “You’re just a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood.” Engineers need to improvise with Swiss army knives even to get the astronauts’ equipment to work properly. Space travel is shown for much of the film as being similar to being thrown into a gigantic tumble dryer. The astronauts are buffeted and shaken. Things keep on breaking down. The rockets themselves look as if they are made out of rusty old iron.
The testing phase is exhausting, frustrating and very dangerous. In his usual stoical way, Armstrong sees setbacks as positives. The engineers are “failing down here” so that they will get it right when the Apollo finally goes into orbit.
Music is almost as important to First Man as it was to Chazelle’s Oscar-winning La La Land. Composer Justin Hurwitz’s orchestral score is both haunting and majestic. It accentuates the weirdness of being in space, so far from home.
Most audiences will know in advance that Armstrong made it to the moon, taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Suspense is therefore hard to generate. This isn’t a disaster epic like Gravity or a film about survival against the odds. Nor is it even a buddy movie. On the evidence here, Armstrong’s relationship with his outspoken co-astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) was cordial without being as close as you would have expected. Nonetheless, First Man makes gripping and moving viewing.
Chazelle focuses as much on Armstrong’s life on the ground as he does on the mission to the moon. He shows us the astronaut as a conflicted but stubborn and determined figure, a quiet visionary. Asked by his bosses why he feels space flight is important, he surprises them by striking a philosophical note rather than talking about the Cold War or the race to establish America’s supremacy. Getting to the moon isn’t (only) about winning but seeing the world from a new perspective. Chazelle throws in footage of John F Kennedy telling the American people that “we choose to go to the moon” precisely because it is so hard to do and because the challenge brings out “the best of our energies and skills”. The film aims for the higher ground at every opportunity and is all the more inspiring as a result.