Director: Damien Chazelle
12A | 2h 21min | Biography , Drama , History | 12 October 2018 (UK)
The directing and star duo of acclaimed movie musical La La Land – Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling – swap the vivid streetlights and jazzy showtunes of Hollywood for the cold outer reaches of space, in this muscularly intense, technically slick and serious-minded exploration of the career and private life of NASA astronaut and first man on the moon; Neil Armstrong. Adapted by Spotlight writer Josh Singer from James Hanson’s biography, First Man offers us the standard conservative biopic structure, as we follow the key years in the life of the reserved but accomplished navy-pilot-turned-astronaut as he moves from test piloting volatile rocket-powered aircraft out in the California deserts, to graduating to the risky and hurried NASA space programme and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. Clearly aware of how well-trodden this path to the moon is in cinema history, with Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff exploring with gusto the birth of the first manned space missions and the swagger of the men who signed up, and Ron Howard’s popular Apollo 13 (1994) showcasing a space mission in a blow-by-blow jargon-laced manner, Chazelle instead focuses on impressing on audiences the huge forces involved in such a herculean effort. This movie posits Armstrong as a driven, focused man increasingly who leaves humanity behind even as he gets closer to the surface of the moon. But the force of the emotions driving this internalised man are better illuminated by the raw power of the huge unstable rockets pushing him up there. The Apollo programme was above all an awesome technical/industrial effort, one that ultimately created a rocket with enough launch power to run New York City for an hour; and Chazelle’s film makes you feel that.
First Man’s dazzling opening sequence – where we see a pre-NASA Armstrong test a high altitude high speed rocket craft (the X-15) in the early 60s – is a great showcase for how Chazelle intends to set about demonstrating the awe-inspiring science and machinery that was being put to work in the task of blowing a hole in the possible, so viewers get a feel for the scale of what pilots like Armstrong were being asked to do, and to consider what kind of kind human could not only operate in such an intense scenario but subject themselves to the same danger again and again. Whereas Apollo 13 took a broad view of the mechanics of space flight, jumping from ground control to the interior and exterior of the space craft and ensuring a steady stream of exposition kept audiences oriented, Chazelle instead drops you in with Gosling inside a ferociously claustrophobic cockpit and has DP Linus Sandgren keep the 16mm camera up close, never letting us escape to get our bearings. A fierce soundscape that crashes alarming jangling and creaking noises over the constant deafening roar of the rocket jets means we can barely hear ground control trying to ascertain Armstrong’s status over the radio, and as the ship climbs faster and higher and the image shakes to a frenzied blur, it is easy to imagine the whole vehicle will just blow apart. There is so much headache-inducing shuddering that, when we take Armstrong’s perspective, we can barely see any of the cockpit gauges that we know his life depends on. We hardly see the outside of the jet either; the small cockpit vision ports offering only an alarmingly narrow view of an increasingly darkening sky.
This remains one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I have been exposed to in a long time, and three such harrowing flights are dotted throughout First Man’s plot, each taking Armstrong closer to the lunar surface. Such an inferno of noise and vision cuts sharply to a truly sublime moment of tranquility however, as, reaching 140,000 feet and the edge of space, Armstrong kills the rocket engines and has a few precious seconds to stare transfixed at the Earth below before almost losing control and crashing. The physical risks – and incomparable existential rewards – of strapping yourself to a missile with a cockpit and aiming skyward are made exhilaratingly clear. Those who know their history will know many test pilots never walked away from such missions alive. But as Armstrong admits when quizzed by NASA head honchos later, being up that high, alone, changes your perspective forever. Later on Chazelle will broaden out to IMAX format to show the magnificent desolation of the moon surface, but only having squashed our view down in these preceding acts to help evoke Armstrong’s hunger to escape the boundaries.
Armstrong’s skills as an engineer-pilot mean that he makes it back to the ground safely in that and other test missions, but only to face a problem he finally can’t fix. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have to watch their young daughter Katy tragically fade away due to incurable leukaemia, a loss that the screenplay keeps in play as possibly the key motivating factor that propels Armstrong to leap onboard the NASA Gemini and Apollo space programmes when the call for volunteers goes out. “It’s a fresh start”, Janet things aloud to her husband when the call comes in, but maybe Neil is more gripped by the chance to find a metaphysical route out of his grief by riding enough force to defy earth’s gravity and thus feel broken free from the huge gravity well of pain. Maybe he sees touching the moon as the only suitable way of honouring his daughter. Maybe he just has a death wish. As introduced to us by Gosling, Armstrong is not the most talkative guy to start with; a coolly-poised professional with an understated sense of duty to service and country. A product of the Eisenhower stiff-upper lip 50s, Armstrong is the sturdy type who pulls the blinds down in his private office during the wake for his daughter, so his silent tears can remain unseen by anyone else. The next day he is back at test pilot duties, to the bafflement of his pilot buddies. The idea that grief might drive a man to insane levels of risk is not a particularly novel one, but Gosling, the go-to guy for near-silent, steely intensity, sells you on the idea that this man is not only focused like a laser, but also kind of a helpless passenger too. He is being pulled up from earth by the moon itself.
By the time we arrive to the pay-off for all the danger and death – the third act launch of the fabled Apollo 11 and the reveal of the breathtaking 300-foot white spire that is the Saturn V rocket vehicle – Gosling’s eyes are frequently filling the frame in extreme close up, the recurring effect of seeing pinpricks of light in his pupils evoking the moon itself. Gosling’s co-star Claire Foy as Janet suffers in contrast with a limited amount of screen time, as if reflecting how thankless the ‘job’ of an astronaut’s wife sounds in real life. But at least through Foy we get a sense of the terror and frustration of watching a partner be so consumed by a task that seems not only makes you seem humiliatingly small in comparison but seems far more dangerous than promised, even reckless. By the time Neil is sitting down to one last pre-launch dinner where he has promised he will reassure the children he will be coming home, he comes off sounding just like a bland NASA press conference statement. The moon has eclipsed the part of him that was the man Janet fell in love with.
Janet watches Neil loses several friends during the Apollo program, including the crew of Apollo 1 who in real-life perished in a fire in their cramped cockpit, a tragedy chillingly recreated here by Chazelle. These additional losses shut Neil down even further, and leaves Jan to scream at Deke Slayton, the astronaut’s flight roster chief, that NASA’s finest seem not too far removed from kids building balsa wood planes. Jan has a point: as although First Man’s narrative takes a necessarily potted view of the various stages that led to the Apollo programme, one thing that the exquisitely authentic technical recreations (Christopher Nolan’s regular collaborator, Nathan Crowley, served as the film’s production designer) and nerve-jangling flight sequences successfully emphasise is the strange juxtaposition of this hugely ambitious goal with the alarmingly analogue technology. NASA might be carrying out a (so far) never-superseded act of mechanical and scientific genius, but alongside shiny capsules and huge booster rockets sit blackboards, chalk and pencils. The lunar landing module training vehicle, which looks about as sturdy as a biplane with a hoover mounted on the underside, nearly kills Neil in a pre-moon test run: his narrow ejector seat escape at low altitude is true to real life. The pre-Apollo Gemini mission, where Neil and his co-pilot have to prove they can dock a rickety and tiny command module craft in orbit with another craft (thus proving a ship can dock and extract a lunar lander for a moon landing) ends up resembling more driving a submarine in a pitch black ocean trench than a quick parking exercise, with Neil having to steer, consult delphic star charts on his lap, and update a worried Houston all at the same time whilst outside the window there is not even a star field to comfort him (or us).
Only two decades before Armstrong stepped off the lunar module ladder onto the moon surface and uttered his immortal message, the US was flying aircraft made of wood and driven by kerosene piston engines. Chazelle’s film, if it does anything successfully at all, transmits an echo back to us of the original sense of that burst of incredible, reality-ripping force that could only leave those at its apex forever changed. It still seems hard to believe humans rode flaming rockets into the sky, walked on the moon, and got home alive