Damien Chazelle’s First Man sets out its stall right from the opening sequence. Test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is wrestling the controls of a high-powered X-15 aircraft as it skims the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s violent and loud, backed by the sound of metal contorting and Armstrong’s rapid breathing. All the while Chazelle keeps his camera stationed in the cockpit, placing us right next to the man destined to set foot on the moon in 1969. First Man juggles this level of nail-biting intensity with an exploration of Armstrong’s family life and time in NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programmes.
Don’t expect the gung-ho spirit of something like The Right Stuff, though. Chazelle’s fim is anchored by Gosling’s Armstrong, whose pragmatic nature may not suit a traditional film protagonist, but does mean he’s able to stay calm during a crisis. A pulse-quickening recreation of the Gemini 8’s in-flight failure, in which Armstrong’s fast thinking saves the day, shows us exactly why he was earmarked to lead the Apollo 11 mission. Keeping a tight lid on his characters is something that’s second nature to Gosling – his turns in Drive and Blade Runner 2049 make him an ideal fit to play a restrained figure like Armstrong. The most significant flicker of feeling we get is the devastation at losing his daughter to cancer, prompting him to seek a “fresh start” for his family and up sticks to join NASA.
There the agency’s boffins, led by Kyle Chandler’s Deke Slayton, are locked in a race with the Soviets to prepare their astronauts (among them Jason Clarke as Ed White and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin) for a lunar mission. It’s here where Josh Singer’s screenplay starts to ask the key question that makes First Man tick: what was the real cost of putting a man on the moon? It’s not just about the monumental technological requirements, but also the loss of life along the way. In one striking scene, after Armstrong learns of a fire taking the crew of Apollo 1, his grip inadvertently tightens on a champagne glass and it smashes. Blood is literally on his hands.
The casualties pile up and funerals are a regular occurrence for Armstrong. His inability to reconcile the emotional strain this is putting on his family becomes an increasing point of frustration for his wife Janet. Claire Foy is phenomenally good here, and as Armstrong’s date with destiny approaches she hammers home that he needs to tell their sons he may not come back alive. There’s a poignant bit of historical insight around this grave possibility, too. A statement, written by President Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire, was to be delivered in the event of the Apollo mission ending in disaster. “Fate has ordained that men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” reads its poetic opening line.
Safe to say, First Man‘s Apollo 11 manages to stick the landing in its spine-tingling finale. What’s unqiue about the film is how it makes space travel look like a brutal, hellish endurance test, both for the astronauts and the craft involved. Watching First Man unfold, it feels like a minor miracle that a glorified tin bucket, all dials, switches and rattling control panels, managed to make it to moon in one piece. It’s somehow apt that Chazelle shoots everything on film and leans heavily on practical effects – vintage filmmaking to match the Apollo programme’s vintage tech.
In the end, Chazelle manages to fashion First Man into a gripping account of one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The only slight frustration is the stoic-to-a-fault central character – don’t expect to emerge from this film feeling like you’ve gained a complete picture of Armstrong as a man. America’s most reluctant hero remains an enigma, but he’d probably prefer it that way.
First Man is in UK cinemas from 12th October.