On July 20, 1969, the world witnessed the first man land on the moon.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were Neil Armstrong’s history-making words as he stepped foot onto the moon’s powder like surface.
The Apollo 11 mission was a major achievement—not only for the United States of America, but for humanity—and, as First Man reveals on the big screen, a lot of hard work, tragedy and research went into preparing for it.
Apollo 11 was a national goal set in 1961 by then-President John F. Kennedy “to perform a crewed lunar landing and return to Earth”. We now know that this spaceflight was successful (spoiler alert!) and put the first two men on the moon.
First Man is directed by Oscar-winning Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and written by Josh Singer. It is based on the events of Armstrong’s life, as relayed in his official biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen.
The film is shot from the personal perspective of Armstrong and his family and explores the sacrifices that are made leading up to the first mission to land a man on the moon. Ryan Gosling takes the spotlight as Neil Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer, a loving father of two and husband to Janet Shearon (Claire Foy). Their life takes a turn for the worst when they lose their three-year-old daughter, Karen, to a brain tumour; the death of his beloved daughter will shadow Armstrong for the rest of life. He hallucinates about her, breaks down in tears and keeps her alive only in his thoughts, never opening up to his family or friends. As a test pilot for the X-15 in 1961, Armstrong was not allowed to fly anymore because concerns were raised about his emotional stability.
Then, the film brings us to when Armstrong applied for the second group of NASA astronauts for Project Gemini—a two-man spacecraft that would perform space missions. In 1962, Armstrong was selected and would make his first spaceflight as the commander of Gemini 8. During this mission with his co-pilot, David Scott (Christopher Abbott), they had to complete the docking of two spacecrafts while in orbit; although successful, they had to abort the mission due to system failures which caused the spacecraft to spin out of control. The audience witness all the scenes involving spaceflight through the eyes of Armstrong and it is a complete immersive experience. As the camera shakes, we see Armstrong delve into darkness, confined to the small space of the cockpit, and get occasional glimpses of the moon through the tiny windows of the spacecraft—while Armstrong’s eyes dartback and forth from inside his helmet. These elements, put together by cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross, provide this space drama with heart-racing tension that forced me to hold my breath as I watched through squinted eyes. The intense blinking and flashing lights during these scenes is so bright that it’s nauseating. You can’t escape it unless you shut your eyes tight. I imagine that this feeling was akin to what Armstrong felt as he was propelled through space into oblivion.
The well awaited mission of Apollo 11 holds the most dangerous and climactic events of the film. Accompanying Armstrong are crew members Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins—played by Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas respectively. In 1967 (three years before Apollo 11), there was a fatal accident with the Apollo 1 pre-launch tests involving Armstrong’s buddies Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), that delayed the Apollo flights for 20 months while an investigation took place. Putting the devastating events behind them, the Apollo 11 crew suited up and were cleared for take off.
No one has been sent to the moon in 40 years, so, in First Man, the iconic moon-landing scene is truly unbelievably breathtaking and awe-inspiring—that astronauts were able to conquer such a dangerous and world changing journey less than 50 years ago is incredible.
“Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong radios in to Mission Control back on Earth.
“Tranquillity, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot”. On the day this was said, relief was felt around the world, and during First Man’s premiere this relief was felt by the audience in the cinema—even though we all knew what was going to happen.
The moon landing montage is filmed in silence and every camera shot included is equally important to conveying this moment. From Armstrong’s intense gaze, as he stares at his own boot on the moon’s surface as it makes an imprint in the grainy, powder-like dust, to shots of Aldrin bouncing around and looking at Earth in the far-off distance—each causes Armstrong to flashback to memories of his past with Karen. This scene poses a question: why spend so much money and time exploring the moon when there’s so many problems still left to fix on Earth? Why leave your family knowing you risk never seeing them again? First Man doesn’t explicitly answer these questions, but it does force audiences to think about the man behind the first moon landing; especially since there was so much the public didn’t know—the things behind the curtains of Armstrong’s fame. This film paints him in humanising way and emphasises that he wasn’t some sort of superhuman, but a man fuelled with determination and a goal to reach. During an interview Josh Singer, the screen writer, said that the film is meant to be more focused on Neil’s journey and the life that people didn’t know about, rather than the mission itself.
As the two lead roles in First Man, Gosling and Foy put on a sensational performance throughout the entire film. In my opinion, Gosling is the perfect fit to portray Armstrong’s character. The film spans over a seven-year period and he experiences so much loss, tragedy and failure. Through Gosling’s acting skills we get to see the stoic, reserved, but occasionally emotionally expressive man that Armstrong was. Neil’s first wife is the complete opposite to him, and Foy plays her well. As the film progresses the pair’s relationship becomes strained and distant because the Apollo 11 mission becomes Armstrong’s top priority; he even dismisses his kids and comes close to leaving for the moon without explaining where he’s going, but tells his boys he might not make it home (they’ve had another boy since Karen’s death). Foy plays Janet’s character to a tee as she oversees the boys and the house, catching up with the other astronauts’ wives and discussing how she wished for “a normal life” while she sacrifices things no ordinary house wife would. Janet is very sympathetic towards Neil, despite dealing with his dismissive and isolated behaviour, slammed doors and absence. Although the other supporting actors put on a good show during their screen time, they mostly remain hidden figures for most of the film.
After the world premiere of First Man at the Venice Film Festival, there was a bit of controversy surrounding the film since it did not include a scene of the American flagging planted on the moon. Director Damien Chazelle responded to this criticism by commenting that it wasn’t an act of anti-patriotism or a political statement—the goal of this film was “to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon”. Unsurprisingly though, Donald Trump commented that he wouldn’t even bother watching the film for leaving this out. Despite this, First Man still holds an approval rating of 87 per cent—based on 70 reviews—on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been heavily praised.
First Man is well worth your money and time, not only for the talented actors but to witness the story of an ordinary man who worked extremely hard to become the legend he is today.
Personally, I knew very little about Armstrong and this part of human history, so I was engrossed by this film, and I am happy to say I learnt a lot during the 141-minute run time.
So, whether you decide this film catches your eye or not, the next time you happen to have a gander at the moon take the time to appreciate Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012, and all the ordinary men and women who gave up so much for this breakthrough in space exploration.
First Man launches in Australian cinemas October 11.