Upon hearing of a movie about the life of Neil Armstrong, the biggest question I wanted answered was why he was such a quiet, undemonstrative, even shy figure. Although he lived a public life after becoming the first human to step on the moon, he did not seem to chase it, and notably after his death his family described him as a “reluctant hero”.
First Man gives us some answers. Undoubtedly not all of them, but enough to make me understand, empathise with, and care about this man. This man and his family. Because First Man is certainly a film that takes us superbly into space, but it is more about the tragedies that can beset all families. It is a drama that’s serious and often sad, and is a galaxy away from a chest-thumping and patriotic propaganda-fest. The story is based on a book by James R. Hansen, also called First Man, the only authorised biography of Armstrong. Hansen served as co-producer on the film, so let’s assume much of what we see accurately reflects what went on.
It seems like Neil Armstrong was a quiet kind of bloke anyway, one who enjoys spending time with his wife Janet and his children. But daughter Karen has a brain tumour and dies at a young age. (As this film is based on a real person whose story may already be well known I’m not worried about spoilers here). That loss profoundly affects Armstrong, and it is acknowledged throughout the film. Like many men, he keeps his feelings to himself, and away from those around him, even his wife. But in a few achingly emotional moments in the film, we see his loss reflected. So much so that you feel certain that Neil Armstrong’s final thoughts upon his own death were not of becoming one of the most famous humans in history, and of that first famous footstep, but rather of the face of his daughter, who never lived to see her father’s accomplishments.
So let’s get to the filmmakers. Director Damien Chazelle gives us a fine piece of cinema. He takes us inside all manner of craft by mostly eschewing panoramic shots in space, but prefers instead to sit us alongside Armstrong and other pilots in the tight little spaces they occupy in their seats. We hear the craft shake and rattle, we see lots of details of gauges and rivets, and the eyes of the pilot, particularly Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, fighting to stay conscious yet also drinking in the beauty of space.
Chazelle perhaps overuses (to me anyway) cutaway shots of the moon throughout the film, but overall I found his approach captivating. He likes the hand held camera, and he likes to take us close to his characters.
And what of the characters? In Ryan Gosling as Neil, and in Claire Foy as his wife Janet, we have two standout performances. Foy is terrific. A scene where she confronts her husband, in effect ordering him to talk to his sons before he leaves for the Apollo mission, so they understand they may never see their father again, is a wonderful piece of acting. English actress Foy has gone from award winning performances as Queen Elizabeth in The Crown to a young American middle class woman with an absent husband and a couple of kids to corral, and she does it with effortless ease.
In some ways Gosling has the harder task. He has to play a man who kept to himself, but he is well equipped to take on the role. He’s become known for conveying a quiet contained cool. He did in Drive, in Bladerunner:2049, and again here. Armstrong at times struggled to express himself, but when he did it seems he chose his words carefully. Gosling gives us that character.
What this all means I think is that First Man may not be a film which will appeal to all. It’s not a film, for example, like Tom Hanks’ Apollo 13, which was a flat out adventure. If that’s what your after, First Man may in fact disappoint. But it is a mature, serious and often sad examination of Neil and Karen Armstrong, and one which I found deeply rewarding.
And never more so than in its poignant final scene, which is wonderfully conceived and acted, and shows us how a look can convey more than a word. A very highly recommended film.