When mankind took a giant leap in 1969, millions were able to view the monumental event through the prism of television, providing the impression that they too were walking on the lunar surface. What this experience could not replicate was the journey that took Apollo 11 to Earth’s Moon, one that’s longer and more arduous than many realise.
Pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) has never harboured ambitions of space travel; but after the untimely death of his daughter, he applies to become part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Gemini program, believing it will give him and his wife Janet (Claire Foy, The Crown) an opportunity to start afresh. Remarkably, Armstrong’s application is successful – despite lacking the military credentials of his fellow recruits – resulting in a move to Florida.
As the months pass, said recruits are put through rigorous training and science classes that take a toll, both physically and mentally, on their health. Armstrong proves to be one of the stronger trainees, with the bigwigs at NASA touting him as a potential leader of a future expedition. Meanwhile, at the Armstrong family home, tensions are mounting as Janet grows isolated, a feeling brought on by her husband’s long hours spent at work and a lack of communication between the couple.
First Man has no desire to paint Neil Armstrong as any sort of hero, portraying him as an insular, withdrawn figure who shuns company and refuses to show any emotion. This is best exemplified in a press conference, held prior to the launch of Apollo 11, where Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll) appears to revel in the limelight, while Armstrong provides the press with succinct, prosaic answers. He’s also shown to be quite a flawed man, as evidenced by his inability to connect with others, Janet especially.
Not content with being a portrait of an enigma, First Man seeks to immerse the viewer in Armstrong’s travels, and does so impeccably. Certain sequences are shown from a first-person perspective, allowing the audience to become immersed like never before – through the protagonist’s eyes, one can relive the violent shuddering of aircraft, claustrophobic cockpits, ominous creaking and the eerie silence of Earth’s upper atmosphere. For those who wanted to be astronauts in the Sixties, this might be the closest experience they will ever get.
The success of First Man comes courtesy of a rather surprising source: Damien Chazelle. Best known for the music-themed movies Whiplash and La La Land, the director eases back on his motif here, preferring to let scenes play without the use of a soundtrack. Yet First Man is not devoid of music, since long-time collaborator Justin Hurwitz has contributed a score that is used quietly and sparingly throughout; the only exception is when Apollo 11 launches, with the composition matching the gravitas of this powerful moment.
Also reuniting with Chazelle is the lead actor of La La Land, Ryan Gosling, who gives a fantastic performance as the intricate Armstrong, ensuring that he is neither cold nor unpleasant. Gosling’s not the only actor to shine – fresh after her Emmy win, Claire Foy is continuing her rise in Hollywood, playing the role of an anxious, weathered wife with poise. Support comes in the form of Kyle Chandler, as Deke Slayton, and Jason Clarke, as Ed White, both of whom make excellent and welcome contributions in their respective roles.
Much like the historic events it depicts, First Man represents a landmark moment for the medium. Not once does the film cease to be engaging, with talented people in-front of and behind the camera ensuring it is a wondrous voyage, whilst also being a compelling story of an otherwise reclusive figure. Consider it the front-runner for Best Picture.