The opening of First Man is shaky – very, very shaky. It is 1961. Test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is in flight, as close to the stratosphere as he can get. His plane’s instruments are vibrating. It’s not just Neil’s job to guide the plane down – it is necessary for his survival. However, he isn’t gripped by a sense of panic; it is more about his ability to make the right judgements. Naturally, he survives. Otherwise he wouldn’t go on to be the first man to walk on the surface of the moon eight years later.
The weight of expectation surrounding First Man is intense. It is director Damien Chazelle’s first film since La La Land. Its executive producer is one Steven Spielberg. It has a moon walking sequence filmed with IMAX cameras. Working from a script by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) Chazelle appeared to be priming his audience for a white knuckle thrill ride – Whiplash in space. However, First Man doesn’t deliver the way you might expect. It is slow to reveal its hand, to let you in.
The film is taken over by something else: grief. Neil’s young daughter dies and the pilot retreats into himself. Gosling gives his most closed off performance ever. We’ve seen him in love with a life-size plastic doll in Lars and the Real Girl. This time, he’s even more remote.
In the absence of Gosling – not physically, but in emotional availability – Claire Foy takes over as his wife Janet. She has to raise children on an air force base while her husband is co-opted into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Back in the 1960s they didn’t think calling it ‘Space Force’; but then the class bully wasn’t in the White House.
Foy is terrific and if she doesn’t earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I would be astonished. I fully expect to see the scene in which Janet asks Neil to say goodbye to his boys at least three dozen times before Oscar night.
Though it is not music-based – the first of Chazelle’s four features to date not to feature a musician as protagonist – it is an auteur work. Chazelle’s big subject is the challenge of reconciling a profession with a relationship. Neil doesn’t grieve with his wife; he throws himself into his work, almost to the point where he is anonymous. There is a strong supporting cast including Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll (the latter as Buzz Aldrin) and they glow with charisma while Gosling goes through the motions.
About halfway through the film, Armstrong is lodged in another cockpit and the film takes off. We see how unreliable and to some extent primitive the technology is. The production design stresses the manual nature of locks and the basic level of electronics. Chazelle’s big achievement – and he maintains it throughout the film – is to put us where Armstrong and his co-pilots are sitting. He doesn’t give us the exhilaration of a plane or rocket speeding by – even when they set off for the moon, there is no kinetic pleasure in lift off. Rather he offers a more immersive experience. It’s not Neil making the first footprint on the gravelly lunar surface, it feels like us.
I fully admit to being a fan of The Right Stuff and to a lesser extent Apollo 13 (one of director Ron Howard’s best films). First Man has, to adapt a Chazelle line, a different tempo. The final hour and twenty minutes is utterly gripping. When we get into space and, during the exterior shots, there is no sound (finally) I fully geeked out. As every space nut will tell you, sound doesn’t travel in space. OK, so we hear the sound of Armstrong breathing, but inside his suit.
Quite apart from the production design, I was knocked out by Justin Hurwitz’s score, which, frankly I hummed most of the way home. It is also the first of Chazelle’s films to have a political dimension. I’m not just referring to the absence of the American flag being planted on the moon – free tickets to the movie have been offered to US service personnel by way of deflection – but Chazelle sets a montage to Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 poem ‘Whitey on the Moon’ pointing out the disparity spent on space travel and the lack of resources given to the black community. Chazelle understands Scott Heron, but he also answers him. America didn’t correct racial inequality but it proved that it was capable of giant leaps, claimed not for the country alone but ‘for all mankind’ to quote the title of Al Reinart’s 1989 Apollo programme documentary.
First Man is out 12th October!