First Man is l-o-n-g at 2 hrs 21 minutes and not a second too long in my opinion. You might think that, of all films, this one would be a spoiler-free zone – after all we know its hero made it safely to the moon, and back. But, to those of us unfamiliar with the full story of how Apollo 11 made it to the moon, you couldn’t watch a more utterly surprising, more realistic, in your face depiction of the American/Russian space race, and with barely a CGI moment in sight.
I’ve become so used to the Marvel universe; so used to their full-on digitised effects, that I’d forgotten what a ‘real’ film is actually like. First Man is a real film. It’s what film making is all about. In this case an artistic representation of Neil Armstrong between the years 1961 to 1969. Most of it based on fact, some of it poetic license, and all of it making a hugely satisfying whole.
I was eight years old when one of the most momentous events in our history took place, and yet I don’t remember it. I don’t have one recollection of the moon landing. The husband, on the other hand, just 8 months older than me, remembers exactly where he was and who he was with when Armstrong put the first footprint on the moon. Of course I knew Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon. You can still hear his famous words: ‘The eagle has landed’ and ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ echoing down the years. What I didn’t know were the bucket loads of blood, sweat and tears that Armstrong shed to get there.
The film opens with the first of many banging, crashing and creaking roller coaster rides in mid-air, as the camera stays with Ryan Gosling (Armstrong) in the cockpit of the X-15, a plane that he takes dangerously out of our atmosphere to certain death. This up-close camera angle is maintained in every space flight/earth flight scene, focusing almost exclusively on Gosling’s steely cold blue eyes. He uses those blue eyes as a kind of mask refusing to show even a flicker of emotion. We’re there with him; in fact, at times, we are him, as all around us the Dolby surround sound assaults our ears with the excruciatingly loud noise of creaking, straining metals; the explosive surge of rocket fuel (I swear I felt a booster go off under my seat) while the camera blinds us with continually flashing electric lights and the occasional blinding sun flare through the plane/rocket windows. It’s enough to induce vertigo; enough to make you throw up; enough to put any sane person off joining the NASA space programme completely. But then, as this film sort of portrays, Neil Armstrong may have just been teetering on the edge of his own inner madness when he accepted the call to fly to the moon.
In 1961 Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, died from a brain tumour when she was 2 years old. I had to look this up because her illness is not addressed directly in the film. All we see is a colossal, forbidding machine lowering a diabolically sci-fi pointed thing at her head, and then she’s back home, sucking her thumb, asleep on her bed while Armstrong runs her baby fine hair through his fingers. He takes off a tiny name bracelet she wears, turning the K hanging from it around and around. Throughout her illness Armstrong keeps notes at home, logging her treatments and the effect on her health. Ever the research scientist, he seems incapable of addressing anything from an emotional point of view. Then, without missing a beat, a coffin is suddenly lowered into the ground, the mechanical creaking of the winch (doing the lowering) amplified in the cinema. Every sound in this film is amplified to an almost unbearable degree, as though CGI reality has been replaced by heightened sensory reality. Back at home, Armstrong leaves the ‘wake’ and breaks down in his office, before putting his daughter’s tiny name bracelet in his desk drawer, firmly closing it, as though shutting away his emotions too.
And for Armstrong it’s business as usual. He’s back working at his desk the next day, avoiding any well-meant questions about how he is, considering his daughter just died. His daughter’s death is a no-go area, but he’s haunted just the same, as we watch his fingers run through the hair of a child no longer there. And his life becomes a series of funerals. First as a young man in black at his daughter’s grave side. Flash forward through eight years and there he is in his regimen black, as NASA test pilots and astronauts die all around him. Some crash their planes. Some are burned alive in an Apollo command module before it’s even left the launchpad. Armstrong knows them all and, as played by Gosling, seems to retreat into an almost autistic silence, refusing to talk to his wife, refusing to acknowledge the deadly cost of all those test runs, in the race to get to space. And it doesn’t put him off; not in the slightest. Maybe the pristine white of a NASA spacesuit had such an appeal because it represented moving forward, with hope – the exact opposite of the mourning suit he’d had to wear with such regularity.
And then suddenly we’re Armstrong again as he ejects from another test flight gone wrong, and the parachute opens noisily and we see our legs hurtling towards the earth, before the camera pulls away to film Armstrong thudding into the grass, his parachute dragging him along, blood covering one side of his face. And then he goes home, with this obvious great gash on his face and his wife, Janet, asks what happened? To be met with the briefest of answers before Armstrong goes out the door again, announcing that he has to go straight back into work.
Armstrong, here, is a man of so few words that Gosling’s script must have run to just a couple of pages. But it makes him the epitome of that old saying: ‘it’s always the quiet ones.’ There’s nothing obviously heroic about Armstrong in this movie, aside from the astonishingly heroic fact that he regularly put his life on the line his entire adult career, also serving time in the Korean War (which interrupted his aeronautical engineering university studies) for which he flew 78 missions into enemy territory and received three air medals, aged just 22. What I mean is that he’s no Marvel superhero. There are no wisecracks (although the movie has its quietly comic moments.) No macho muscles. No obvious delight in all the heroic actions he’s forced to take, to save his own life and the lives of his various crews. Instead there’s introspection. There’s his ability to work out mathematical engineering problems (using paper and pen) whilst ‘floating in a tin can’ that’s about to career out of control. There’s a calm in the face of life threatening danger that’s almost other worldly. It’s as though Armstrong suppressed his emotions to such a degree that he became as machine-like as the machines that carried him. And through fleeting glimpses of his dead daughter, as she continues to haunt Armstrong throughout the moon landing programme, we realise that maybe Chazelle’s film isn’t about one of the most epic moments in human history. What we’re actually watching is a study in grief.
Claire Foy (Armstrong’s wife) does a lot of very heavy-duty, 60s type smoking in this film. She doesn’t just inhale those chain smoked cigarettes, she practically eats them. Her job is to wait around all the time, nervously chewing on her thumb, trying to pretend to her two sons that their dad doesn’t have a death wish, whilst Armstrong finds ever more ingenious ways to kill himself.
All of this domestic, emotional upheaval is shot in a hand held, documentary fashion; a bit like the Paranormal Activity films, or all the found footage off-shoots from the Blair Witch project. Therefore, we feel that we’re walking alongside Armstrong, or his wife, as the camera jumps up and down, just as our eyes would, placing us firmly in each scene. It’s effective but it’s also claustrophobic. ‘Oh, pull away for just a second,’ I found myself thinking. There are few wonderfully large CGI space vistas in this film. No pixel perfect images. It’s all nuts and bolts and spanners and, both alarming and comic, a swiss army knife that someone produces to fix a problem just before take-off. Instead we get glimpses of the earth and the moon through Armstrong’s helmet, and then through the tiny windows in his capsule. This is no Star Trek ship equipped with a gigantic viewing screen. For the first time I realised what a limited view the 60s astronauts had from the equally limited space in their ridiculously tiny capsules.
Throughout the film Armstrong looks up at the moon from his back garden, through some sort of 60s hand held device, wanting to be alone and resenting anyone who dares to impinge on his solitary, moon-watching personal space. One moon watching night a friend approaches him and asks how he feels about the death of his daughter and the taciturn reply is: ‘would I be standing here alone if I wanted to talk?’ He doesn’t like socialising. He’s acutely uncomfortable during the press interviews before his historic mission to the moon, whilst Buzz Aldrin steals the show, making jokes, lightening the mood. There’s an irony for you. Armstrong, one of the most famous men on the planet, had zero interest in fame.
The moon landing itself is a cinematic triumph. Damien Chazelle isn’t afraid of stark silences, interrupted by Justin Hurwitz’s very effective film score, which includes something called a theremin, a strange instrument reminiscent of 1950s sci-fi. Thankfully Hurwitz uses his theremin sparingly, as a sort of theme to Armstrong’s silence in grief, as it’s definitely a sound that would change the whole tone of this film if it went on for more than a few seconds. And the moon landing is when you see that Neil Armstrong was, in fact, made for his role as the first, solitary man on the moon. Hadn’t he been leading up to that moment in more than just his astronaut training? But also in his natural reticence; in his desire, like Garbo, to be left alone – and his inability to mourn publicly for his daughter. Where better to get away from it all than the moon?
Because the moon is the one place you can mourn, without fear of any intrusions – in space, no-one can hear you scream. From the moment he steps out of the landing module we no longer see Armstrong’s face. Just a dark visor reflecting the module and his surroundings. It’s impossible to see what he’s thinking and feeling. And then he’s off, walking into the distance until he reaches a small crater, holds out a gloved hand to reveal his daughter’s tiny bracelet and throws it into the crater.
And that’s the one spoiler. Is it true? Is that what Armstrong did on the moon- leave something else there besides the stars and stripes? It doesn’t matter because Josh Singer, the writer, has captured the essence of a good story. You believe the story is about one thing, and it turns out to be about something else altogether.
The NASA stuff in this film is wonderful and interesting and amazing and I still don’t think I’ve used enough superlatives. My mind was well and truly boggled. It’ll make you want to read and watch everything you can find about Armstrong and NASA.
First Man will also win an Oscar.