“Mom, what's wrong?” the youngest Armstrong son asks his worried mother Janet (Claire Foy), who's got her back to him and standing alone in the bedroom with her head down. As she turns and faces him, she says: “Nothing, honey. Your dad's going to the Moon.” Appearing deep into First Man — the docudrama-like biopic of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from La La Land and Whiplash director Damein Chazelle — the slightly-humorous interaction hits at the obsessive craziness that plagued NASA in the sixties, having been tasked by the late US President John F. Kennedy to get an astronaut to the lunar surface. Though the Soviet Union had already launched a man into space, which propelled Kennedy’s decision, his call to action was still a literal moonshot. No one really knew if it could be done.
The questions over practicality were tied together with the arguments for whether it was sensible. Quizzed by a politician in First Man on why NASA was facing hurdle after hurdle, which had caused budgets to rocket, Armstrong points out that humans had only learned to fly 60 years ago. Rightful concerns are raised by marginalised groups such as African-Americans, who voice their displeasure at the money being spent on the space programme — First Man makes use of the song “Whitey on the Moon”, which is a (tiny) factual error since Gil Scott-Heron only released it in 1970 — while the country is facing a multitude of social issues down on the ground. But Chazelle’s film isn’t about the big picture. Instead, it focuses solely on the men and women who gave it all to realise a Cold War-era pursuit.
Working off a screenplay by Josh Singer (Spotlight), who adapted James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, First Man focuses on the lives of the Armstrong family and those immediately around them, between the years of 1961 to 1969. When the film starts, Armstrong is a research test pilot flying rocket-powered planes in the upper atmosphere. He has a son Eric and a daughter Karen with wife Janet, but after the latter kid dies at the age of two due to a brain tumour, he applies to NASA’s new Gemini space programme in the hope of a fresh start. He’s accepted, post which he begins the gruelling training process for the eventual mission alongside several others, including Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), and David Scott (Christopher Abbott).
It’s a bit surprising that First Man is the first dramatisation of Armstrong’s life and the Apollo 11 space mission given Hollywood’s love for heroic stories. The former bit is partly due to the astronaut’s reluctance to let people into his life — his biography was written and published only in the early 2000s, over three decades after his historic trip to the Moon — while the reasoning for the latter is that it’s not easy to generate drama out of a well-conducted mission. Chazelle and Singer are well aware of that and it’s why their film places a heavy emphasis on the events leading up to that, a path that was littered with failures. It’s not just the moments that are highlighted, but the human perspective they all take that builds up tension and fills you with dread, which is exactly what the makers are going for.
The spectre of death hangs over First Man from the start. After Karen passes away, the reserved and stoic Armstrong buries his struggle to cope with his daughter’s death by only thinking about the work ahead of him. Things get only worse from there and the film does a great job of conveying how mission failures, which thrust NASA into the media spotlight now and then, had much more long-lasting effects on the families and close friends of the astronauts. By the time Armstrong is getting ready to leave home for the Apollo 11 launch, he has withdrawn so far into himself that he’s unwilling to say goodbye to his two remaining boys — they had a second son Mark shortly after Armstrong got into Gemini training — until Janet forces him to. And even when he does look Eric and Mark in the eye, Armstrong behaves like he’s addressing reporters at a press conference.
And then there’s how it’s all presented on screen. Chazelle wants the audience to see and feel exactly what the astronauts did, from the horror of being stuck in a burning rocket, the mind-spinning shaking and spinning inside the Gemini 8, or the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon, as Aldrin put it. To achieve most of this, cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) violently shakes and jolts the camera, while eschewing wide, panoramic shots of the spacecrafts, keeping the field of view severely restricted. (First Man ditches that only when it gets on the Moon, which makes for a neat switch.) That results in extreme close-ups of the astronauts’ faces and helmets and their limited vision through the tiny windows, bringing to life how claustrophobic the experience must have been for them.
Meanwhile, the composer Justin Hurwitz (La La Land) and his sound department rely on a minimal background score — they only switch to a bombastic version during the immediate moments prior to the lunar landing — paired with the harrowing sounds of riding a rocket made in the 1960s being launched straight through the Earth’s atmosphere and into outer space. This isn’t some futuristic piece of machinery that audiences regularly see in sci-fi franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, and First Man conveys that really well. Every creak and groan of the cobbled-together pieces of metal and the sound of the astronauts drawing breath through oxygen tanks further immerses you into the cockpit, with all of it really hammering how terrifying the ordeal was. It's visceral, it’s stomach-wrenching, it's brutal and frankly it feels like hell.
And that’s what sets First Man apart from other space movies. It doesn't take spaceflight as granted, it can't because it's rarely and briefly been achieved in the time it's being told, at great expense. The film understands the magnitude of what Apollo 11 would have truly meant in the 1960s — and in fact, what that still means given mankind hasn't been to the Moon since 1972 — and wants the audience to absorb that. It brings in actual news footage of people watching across the globe and reacting to the mission’s success towards the end to drive home that point. But Chazelle isn’t ever carried away by the magnitude of Armstrong & Co.’s achievements and hence his film stays away from treating them as legends originating from a mythology.
The singular point of hindrance is that Armstrong’s personality limits what the easily-relatable Gosling can do with the role; Foy, on the other hand, is helped by Janet’s simmering nature and lines such as these: “You're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don't have anything under control.” By remaining grounded and being understated, in combination with its cinematic work — Chazelle has spoken about how every space film is in some way a child of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though in terms of style and execution, this feels like an anti-2001 — First Man may well become the hallmark for how to handle stories of individuals of such renown and importance.