First Man

Ryan Gosling in the movie First Man. (Universal Pictures)
Ryan Gosling in the movie First Man. (Universal Pictures)


4/5 Stars


Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon and this is the story of how he got there. From dealing with the death of his young daughter in 1961 through returning as a hero after completing the first successful, manned mission to the moon in July 1969, we see Armstrong struggling to come to terms with his loss even as each step that brings him closer to the moon is littered with obstacles, both practical and emotional.


Quite unlike Hidden Figures and less even than Apollo 13, just about everyone on Earth, aside for maybe the very, very young and the very, very paranoid, knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. This is a given and it’s something that Damien Chazelle, the brilliant director of Whiplash and La La Land, had to find a way to work around if he was to make a film about that historical event with any sort of tension or surprise. Fortunately, Chazelle and screenwriter, Josh Singer (working off the book by James R. Hansen) have proven to be more than up to the task and have made a film that is, by turns tense, poignant and subtle.

The film’s success (and, to be sure, its few weaknesses) comes both from Chazelle’s keen understanding of the story that needs to be told here and the fact that Armstrong is a remarkably reserved and private figure – especially in comparison to his comrade in arms and “second man on the moon”, Buzz Aldrin, here played winningly but rather unflatteringly by Corey Stoll. It also undeniably comes from its excellent cast, but most especially its two leads, Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet. 

Far more than a story about how humanity took our first step on a surface not of this earth (well, depending on which scientific theory is correct about the origins of the moon, at least), First Man is the story of a smart, brave and driven man coming to terms with unimaginable loss. Like many men and certainly many men of that era would, no doubt, have reacted to such an event, Armstrong’s default response to the death of his very young daughter from cancer was one of almost complete emotional shut-down. He still finds some joy in his wife and children but, after a heartbreaking scene of him having, what is for all intents and purposes, a final real cry for his beloved child (played out in steady, unblinking close-up) he treats any deep emotional response – especially any further trauma – either with a business-like calmness or by pouring everything he has into his mission.   

No one does that sort of quite intensity better than Ryan Gosling and he slips right into the real-life role of Neil Armstrong as if he is the great man himself reborn. He’s so effortlessly on-point here that it’s easy to overlook just how good he is but his ability to portray a complex human being with only subtle gestures and, usually, by what he doesn’t say rather than what he does, is no small achievement.

Claire Foy’s Janet, on the other hand, acts as his emotional counterpoint; expressing the fear, sorrow and uncertainty that he is so quick to bury, while also being the far more, if you pardon the pun, grounded one in the marriage. She supplies a healthy dose of common sense to counteract his single-minded obsessiveness; an obsessiveness that suggests an underlying need to escape, even by death, his grief. Foy proves herself to be just as invaluable to the story being told by the film as Gosling himself.

Inevitably, an actor can only ever really be as good as the material with which they have to work and, as should be fairly clear by now, the material here goes well beyond a traditional historical biopic. This is true in the quieter, more dramatic scenes and it’s true in the film’s major set pieces. The decade leading to the Apollo 11 mission has Armstrong testing all sorts of space craft; each theoretically incrementally more suited to the role of finally reaching and landing on the moon but, in practice, are horrifying death traps; barely reconstructed tin cans that are flung at supersonic speeds free from terra firma into the coldness of space with a pilot who is far less in control of his craft than it is of him. 

These sequences are filmed with a white-knuckle tension that far supersedes the rational part of your brain that understands how it all turns out in the end. From the well-used shaky-cam action to, perhaps most of all, the mix of exceptional sound editing and a keen sense of when to punctuate the action with music (the magnificent score is once again handled by Chazelle’s usual partner-in-crime, Justin Hurwitz) and when to have the audience struck dumb by the deafening silence of space. Interestingly, the only time the film pulls back a little in these scenes is during the Apollo 11 mission itself, which allows for some well-earned grandeur to pick up some of the slack from the loosening tension that comes from just how well-known this particular space-mission itself is.

Not that Chazelle is overly interested in the undeniable grandeur of the moon (especially when seen on an IMAX screen) or even the actual moon landing, as the landing itself and its most iconic of iconic lines (something about a giant step?) turns out to be fairly anticlimactic. There is a moment of emotional catharsis here, though, that, despite being possibly the most fanciful part of the film, is its true climax; one that solidifies just what the film is and what it isn’t – and is further cemented in a final shot that, though beautifully underplayed, once and for all removes any shadow of a doubt about what the true point of the past 140 minutes actually was. 

What all this does mean, though, is that far more than the film’s actual faults – slightly awkward pacing being by far its worst offence as fitting an entire decade into a two-and-a-quarter-hour film gives it a rushed but herky-jerky feel to its storytelling – the biggest obstacle to truly embracing the film is that it resolutely refuses to play into your expectations. It’s a film with little of the wonder of most space movies of its ilk and far, far less of that fist-in-the-air joyousness that marked the final minutes of Apollo 13 (the film): it’s a much more sombre and thoughtful work that may feature one of mankind’s most extraordinary achievements (just keep reminding yourself: they did all this fifty or more years ago!) but is most interested in the inner working of its lead character’s mind. 

This may be my least favourite of Damien Chazelle’s three films to date but, as was the case with both Whiplash and La La Land, it’s still an absolute must-see – and preferably in a cinema that would do it justice.



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