First Man

FIRST MAN. Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas. Directed by Damien Chazelle. 141 minutes. Rated M (Occasional coarse language).

When I was 19 and on a monthlong trip through the United States, I spent a day at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I had never felt so small, nor had the achievements of the American space program ever loomed so enormous. Hearing the stories of the astronauts who willingly placed their lives in the hands of science flooded me with a deep and sincere awe and dread. Countless films, both historical and science fiction, have dared to go into space before ‘First Man’. Yet none have captured the sheer audacity and terror of mankind’s quest to reach the moon almost half a century ago. This film has its flaws, but ‘First Man’ is, in my books, the closest cinema has come to portraying the intoxicating and maddening horror of space travel. That men strapped themselves to rockets with over 30 million horsepower, harnessed by the mere computing power of a Casio, is staggering and utterly mad. The fragility of the enterprise, the hostility of space and the threat to life that it represents. Ideals greater than mere courage. Director Damien Chazelle’s new film conveys all these things and more. 

Josh Singer’s screenplay was based on ‘First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong’ by James R. Hansen, and chronicles Armstrong’s journey from being an X-15 test pilot in 1961 to becoming the first person to ever walk on the moon just eight years later. The film often leaps great swathes of time to condense this unimaginably complex journey, but Singer and editor Tom Cross keep everything humming along with judicious choices of what to depict and what to leave out. The film chooses to focus primarily on highlights from the two distinct silos of Armstrong’s life: his work with NASA and his homelife.

The former is made along the lines of a classic ‘men on a mission’ film, riding the highs and extreme lows that confronted NASA in their quest to put a person on the moon. From the opening scene, in which Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) almost loses control of his X-15 test flight, bouncing off the atmosphere while attempting to perform re-entry, this is immersive, visceral filmmaking at its finest. When the film takes to the skies, you will find yourself regularly clenched. Chazelle, who won a Best Director Oscar for ‘La La Land’, puts viewers firmly in the experience of the pilots themselves, forgoing modern, sweeping camerawork in favour of far more intimate set-ups. Working with his talented DP Linus Sandgren, Chazelle mixes extreme close-ups, showing the grimacing faces of Armstrong and his fellow crew hurtling through our atmosphere, with point-of-view shots, focusing more on the broad expanses of switches and blinking lights and the fallible nuts and bolts holding their crafts together than the breathtaking vistas passing behind their narrow windows. The movie’s point of view rarely moves outside their cockpits, only occasionally cutting to a camera affixed on some stationary part of their aircraft, or to images of igniting rocket boosters, their earth-rattling power captured in fleeting moments of igniting fuel. These clever choices place the audience into Armstrong’s own perspective in a manner that I’ve never encountered before, and it’s breathtaking in all the right ways.

In contrast, Armstrong’s family life feels less involved, reflecting the man’s own alienation. After the death of his young daughter Karen, Armstrong withdraws from wife Janet (Claire Foy) and his two sons. Karen’s death invokes a rare display of emotion from Gosling, who plays Armstrong stoically for much of the film. This crack in his carefully composed demeanour lends the character a humanity early on, establishing Karen’s keenly felt absence as the emotional centre of the story. This thread pays off in a major way, but Neil displays little to no understanding of Janet’s struggle to reconcile her husband’s diminishing involvement with his family while his head is lost amongst the stars. Foy carefully depicts Janet’s steadfast love of Neil with steel and grit, taking the fight to his NASA superiors when they try to cut off radio comms to the families of astronauts during a problem with Gemini 8’s mission, all while her family life and her patience with Neil are crumbling (the couple eventually divorced some 25 years later). Sandgren and Chazelle stick resolutely to their use of handheld cameras and close-ups during these domestic scenes, an aesthetic choice which can sometimes overstay its welcome, but the emotions remain compelling regardless.

While not all of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts are fleshed out, the man himself is writ large in this epic biopic. Thanks to Chazelle’s commitment to realism, this is both the definitive biopic of Armstrong and the most faithful depiction of the experience of early astronauts. The craft on display is first rate and the performances are finely calibrated portraits of genuine heroes. It took flesh-and-blood figures to take mankind to the moon, and ‘First Man’ memorialises the courage and sacrifices that this vulnerability required. It is, quite simply, out of this world.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out October 11.

Universal Pictures.