Directed by La La Land‘s Damien Chazelle, First Man is a biopic of test pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong, based on the biography of the same name written by James R. Hansen. I’d read the book, and I love anything to do with space travel, so I was always going to be excited for this film. Still, I was expecting a pretty basic approach to the source material, which is the approach most filmmakers would probably have taken. And First Man proved to be a long way from those expectations. As I watched it, I found myself reflecting on Apollo 13, and how that film – which begins with Armstrong’s moon landing, and covers events that happened shortly afterwards in the American space programme – is designed more for mass appeal, with its neat structure, James Horner-composed score, and awe-inspiring story of triumph in the face of adversity. First Man, on the other hand, is not the sort of film that will appeal to everyone. But while I can’t say I liked it better than Apollo 13, I thought it was amazing, and the best film I’ve seen this year. Hopefully its quality will carry over to success at the Oscars, which it certainly deserves.
Hansen’s book, and other sources I’ve looked at, paint a picture of Neil Armstrong as reserved, analytical, and unknowable – and that’s exactly how he is portrayed here by Ryan Gosling. But when making a biopic about such a man, keeping the audience invested in who he is and not just the things he did is potentially challenging. The film takes a few different approaches to maintain an appropriate level of drama. It starts off with Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) losing their baby daughter Karen to a brain tumour in 1962; Neil is deeply affected, but doesn’t express his grief to others, and his memories of Karen continue to impact him inwardly in the years that follow, even as he focuses all his effort and talent on his astronaut career. While at NASA, he loses friends and co-workers in tragic accidents, and has to deal with that too. Interspersed throughout are snapshots of his family life, and what Janet herself goes through, not just having a husband performing a very risky job, but one who doesn’t even open up to her very much. As you can probably tell, the overall tone is rather more sombre than that of similar films and TV productions about the early days of NASA.
Watching the film, I was invested in and fascinated by both Neil and Janet, completely seeing the characters and not the actors. Enigmatic as he is, Gosling’s Neil is still human – though I would have liked the film to demonstrate the lighter side of his personality a bit more than it does. Missing from the film, for example, is Michael Collins’s comment on Apollo 11 after the lunar module undocking: “You’ve got a fine-looking machine there, Eagle, despite the fact you’re upside down.” To which Neil replied, “Somebody’s upside down.”
The script itself seems to reflect Neil’s mind and personality in how focussed it is. Any time spent building the big picture of America’s effort to put a man on the Moon is limited – the centre is Neil, and that approach in itself makes this film feel different from what has come before. A lot of what’s going on in the background has to be pieced together from snippets; sometimes this works, but other times it makes the film feel incomplete – the buildup to the Apollo 11 mission feels quite rushed, for example. The focus on Neil and Janet comes at the expense of most of the other real-life characters, many of whom only get named in passing, and then just their first names. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) gets a couple of moments to establish himself as outspoken and brutally honest; but poor Michael Collins, the third man of Apollo 11, is barely even there. There is also material which gets left out that I would have liked to see included, such as the argument over whether Neil and Buzz would be first to step onto the Moon, or the bombardment of public attention that Neil faced after becoming the titular First Man.
With so many potential aspects of Neil’s life to work with from the book, the film has to be selective – but it knows how it wants to do things, and sticks to the relevant bits. The end result is very well paced, and very emotional, especially by the end; and any historical inaccuracies I noticed were few and minor, which is always a plus. There was controversy before the film’s release, when it was revealed that there would be no scene of Neil and Buzz planting the American flag on the Moon; some suggested that its absence was in the name of modern political correctness. Once it was established that the flag was at least still visible next to the Lunar Module and hadn’t been removed altogether, I felt it was no big deal. (Then again, I’m not American.) Having seen the film, though, I can say that the absence of the flag-planting is not merely excusable, but appropriate. This film isn’t telling the audience about a great American achievement – that’s been done. This is the story of a man’s personal journey, which coincided with that great American achievement; and for him, there are more important things than planting a flag.
The cinematography in First Man feels personal too, with lots of intimate close-up shots, as well as camera movements and a grainy colour palette that resemble old home video. This style is used to its greatest effect in the flying and spaceflight sequences, where the film aims to put the audience themselves in the cockpit, or at least very close to it. During the opening scene of Neil flying the X-15 aircraft, for example, the shots are either inside the cockpit, or from the perspective of an imaginary camera attached to the fuselage; we don’t get a proper external view of the X-15 until after Neil has landed it. I was particularly blown away by the scene where Neil is launched on his first spaceflight, Gemini 8, which uses POV shots to bring us right up to the waiting Gemini spacecraft and show us how crude and claustrophobic it looks. Then comes the noise and violence of the launch itself from the astronauts’ perspective, with no triumphant instrumental score accompanying them on their way, and a rare example of ‘shaky cam’ being used effectively.
The more intense scenes like this – which manage to generate serious tension even if you know how things turn out – are overwhelming to the senses: I never felt motion-sick trying to follow the shaky cam, but the bombardment of sound was something else. This is a very loud film when it wants to be. And yet it knows when to be quiet, too: there are many important and powerful scenes which have no background music. And whenever the score by Justin Hurwitz does make an appearance, it’s simple and hits all the right emotional chords.
Even though First Man is not a perfect or traditional telling of the story of Neil Armstrong and the space programme, Damien Chazelle clearly knew what he wanted to achieve, and the end product works. Everything this film does well, it does especially well. It is an incredible, immersive, hard-hitting and unique experience. And ‘experience’ is definitely the right word. Rating: 5/5!