Image Credit: Universal Pictures
Before we begin this review, a major pinch of salt. As someone who once read every Apollo mission’s Wikipedia entry, I may be a little bit obsessed with the Space Race. Anyway, First Man is the latest from Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle, on the back of their success with La La Land, exploring NASA’s attempts at putting a man on the moon, via the eyes of its most famous participant, Neil Armstrong. I had been waiting for this film for some time, and it does not disappoint.
The film is one of contrasting parallels, with the balance of the more mudane, family life with the extraordinary work in space. Upon first arriving, Patricia White welcomes Janet Armstrong to the astronaut’s community. After the death of her husband, it is instead Janet’s turn to provide support. The film is quite deliberate in the manner of what it does and doesn’t show, ensuring that as the film progresses, Neil Armstrong is developed by the lessons he has learnt upon the way. At times, this means the film feels as though it is straying much closer to a biopic than intended, with many important figures in this period of NASA reduced to bit parts. Of course, moments and people of NASA history need to be skipped over in order to get to the moon landing, but I feel that a few could maybe have been lingered on for longer. One especially is the inherent tragedy of Gus Grissom and the AS-204/Apollo 1 test that left three astronauts dead, particularly as the door that sealed their fate had come about as a result of one of his earlier missions. This is also not the film to see for a more critical approach to NASA at the time, and in some ways can only be complemented by watching the excellent Hidden Figures for another, more diverse, perspective.
Continuing the contrasts within the film is the spectacular use of sound. Not since Gravity have we seen such a vivid portrayal of space and spaceflight, and this surpasses even that. Space is a place of contrasts, with the huge, swelling orchestral score giving way to silence on the drop of a hat as the astronauts move between their ship, space, and the lunar surface. Sound is also key for tension, especially in the case of the ill-fated Gemini 8 mission, with a combination of intense sound, light and spectacular cinematography bringing the true dread of the situation to bear. Compare this with earth, which is relatively quiet in comparison. Silence still reigns, but is only matched by an unobtrusive, 60s-tinged score, and the use of the theremin drives home the fact that the astronauts are essentially living science fiction-much of what they learn and use was only created as the result of the Space Race, living on the frontier of scientific development.
As mentioned, the film strays close to being a biopic at times, and as such, a strong portrayal of the central characters are needed. To quote Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’, Neil Armstrong is not a man who “miss[es] the earth so much”. Arguably, he doesn’t miss his wife either. After the opening scenes seeing the death of his daughter Karen, Neil is always emotionally distant, responding to questions from his children in the same manner as he would journalists at a press conference. The film hangs the emotional weight of the film on Karen, which while effective, it may have been slightly truer to life to instead focus on Apollo 1, and the commemorative pin that he did leave on the moon.
Semantics aside, Ryan Gosling brings a real personality to Neil through few words, and anyone who can portray emotion via the body language of a space suit is surely something that deserves awards recognition. Awards recognition is also very much deserved by Claire Foy, who as Neil’s wife Janet, carries much of the emotional weight that he can’t. While she isn’t the focus of the film, and doesn’t appear as regularly as you might expect, Foy really wrings out everything she can get from the character, providing the balance that her family requires.
From a humble beginning, Neil Armstrong became the first man to visit our lunar companion. This could describe the film as well, starting in a local, family setting before reaching for the stars. While I may prevaricate about what might have been, First Man remains an excellent piece of cinema and I would highly recommend you seek it out.