Two previous high-profile films chronicling US space programme derring-do, 1983’s The Right Stuff and 1995’s Apollo 13, arrived in cinemas approximately 20 years after the events they depict, but moviegoers have had to wait almost twice as long for a major release about the nation’s most colossal achievement. As macabre as it may sound, it was arguably difficult to make First Man with any strong semblance of credibility when the man in question was still alive.
Neil Armstrong died in 2012, aged 82, and was largely a recluse for the last 20 years of his life, politely declining postal requests for autographs and countless sponsorship or promotional offers. By contrast, his fellow traveller Buzz Aldrin has continued to dine out on his moment in history; a TV chat-show regular and a familiar face in commercials, he even self-mockingly shouted at the Moon with Tina Fey in an episode of 30 Rock.
The likelihood that Armstrong would have publicly given his blessing to a film like First Man, let alone be involved in a consultancy role, is remote, and his silence might have had far-reaching repercussions on how the film was received. He did approve James R Hansen’s 2005 book upon which Josh Singer’s script is based, encouraging others to speak to the author though refusing to be interviewed himself. But his reluctance to endorse a proposed screen adaptation by Clint Eastwood shortly after the book’s publication was a significant factor in the project languishing in development hell.
Yet it’s the humble, unassuming nature of Armstrong’s character that richly feeds Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the astronaut in director Damien Chazelle’s elegantly drawn and often intimate film. He’s a hero-in-waiting of relatively few words, thoughts and (presumably) fears relayed largely in extreme close-ups of the slightest changes in facial expressions, as opposed to Aldrin (Corey Stoll), whose bluster and braggadocio could be interpreted as his own coping mechanism in the face of the life-threatening mission ahead.
Scenes where Armstrong, Aldrin, other astronauts and their spouses drink beer at back porch barbecues will be familiar to anyone who’s watched either The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, but there’s a palpable detachment to Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Still coming to terms with the tragedies of their daughter’s death and, as Janet recalls, “four funerals in one year” during her husband’s time as a test pilot, it’s as if they have a greater appreciation of the risks ahead.
Gosling and Foy are magnificent together. Celebrity sits uneasily on Neil’s shoulders (not least when he learns of colleagues’ deaths during the launch of Apollo 1 as he grips and grins his way through a White House reception), and his awkward response to his son’s question about whether he’s coming back from the Moon is straight out of the Nasa press conference handbook. It’s left to Foy to be the canvas that conveys the couple’s deepest emotions, while simultaneously fending off the world’s media and taking aerospace bigwigs to task in a manner her orders-following husband never could. “We’ve got this under control,” Nasa chief Deke Slayton tells her. “You’re a bunch of boys!” she screams in reply. “You don’t have anything under control!”
Having skilfully painted an affecting, human drama with the help of his two brilliant lead actors, Chazelle is savvy enough not to overweigh the other side of the seesaw when it comes the action. Training and test flight sequences are tightly edited but no less powerful for their comparative lack of bells and whistles, and when he frames Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins walking towards Apollo 11 for lift-off, it recalls scenes of inmates on their way to the gallows in prison movies.
In place of the luscious panoramic vistas of, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Chazelle’s vision of the vast unknown is steeped in claustrophobia and isolation. Once his craft has, to quote poet and wartime fighter pilot John Gillespie Magee (and heard in the film via an archive news report), “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” Armstrong is all but alone with his thoughts, the director again utilising close-ups to connect with the inner man, rather than outer space.
While numerous documentaries have been made about the triumph of the Moon landings, almost inevitably focusing on the technology of the achievement itself, none have ever really taken a long, hard look at the figure who became the most famous man on the planet by leaving it. Armstrong’s long-standing reticence to share his own, most personal perspective in any great detail means one aspect of world history will forever remain unknown, but First Man is an admirable and engrossing attempt to understand the motivation and mental processes of the star voyager who took that one small step.
First Man is released in cinemas on Friday 12 October