Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Josh Singer, based on the novel by James R. Hansen
Runtime: 141 mins.
Australian release date: 11 October 2018
Previewed at: Universal theatrette, Sydney, on 8 October 2018.
Imagine being blasted into space strapped to the front of what is, to all intents and purposes, a massive bomb that’s controlled by equipment with less technology than a modern mobile phone! It would be a nerve-wracking experience but it’s one that was endured time and again by the astronauts of the early days in the USA’s race to the moon, the Apollo project. This out-of-the-world experience is brilliantly captured in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a fine adaptation of James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, which covers the period leading up to Apollo 11’s lunar landing vehicle, The Eagle, delivering the first men to the surface of the moon on 20 July 1969.
Beginning in 1961, the opening sequence puts you in the pilot’s seat as we hurtle through the earth’s atmosphere with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) while his test plane judders and shudders into outer space before descending to a rough landing in the desert. The scene immediately shows you that this is a man who can keep cool under severe pressure. It soon becomes evident that he is also a devoted family man besotted by his two children, and particularly by his very ill infant daughter Karen, and that he’s supported by a strong, loving wife, Janet (Claire Foy). After the untimely death of his daughter, Armstrong seems immersed in a deep grief that makes him insular and he throws himself into his work. When an opportunity comes to volunteer to become an astronaut in the nascent space program, he leaps at the chance because, as much as he’s excited by the program, keeping busy and pushing himself keeps his sorrow at bay.
Space exploration in the ‘60s was pretty basic, engineering-wise, and the production design in the film is unnerving in its authenticity. The close-up shots of the large nuts and bolts holding together a rocket that’s about to roar into the stratosphere make you tremble. They bring to mind the Bowie song Space Oddity - “For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world…” These acts of bravery, or perhaps folly, are highly apparent because the space capsules were extremely claustrophobic and close-fitting. Once you were strapped in your movement was limited to adjusting the on/off switches immediately in front of you and not much more. There’s a passage when three astronauts (including Aussie actor Jason Clarke as Ed White) are bolted into the capsule of Apollo 1 that shows just how risky these space flights were; radio contact with NASA’s ground control was your only support once inside the chamber. Chazelle says he was, “astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the enterprise - the number of times it circled failure, as well as the toll it took on all involved. I wanted to understand what compelled these men to voyage into deep space, and what the experience - moment by moment, breath by breath - might have felt like.” To his great credit, he’s conveyed that feeling in spades.
First Man is Oscar material and not only for the aforementioned production design and art direction. Gosling is mesmerizing as the tortured, driven soul who has the courage to journey into the unknown, and Foy’s depiction of Janet, a woman who exhibits just as much courage as she stands by her quiet man and who holds her own when seeking information, is also superb. The leads are well-served by the actors in the many supporting roles, particularly Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin and Jason Clarke as White. Apparently, the real Janet Armstrong reviewed Josh Singer’s script twice before her death and was happy with the project, which adds to its imprimatur of authenticity. First Man is visually stunning, especially the moon landing and subsequent walk on its surface. It’s enhanced by the stirring score of Chazelle's go-to composer Justin Hurwitz and is beautifully captured by Linus Sandgren’s glorious lensing. This is a rare treat and worth it for the ride into another dimension. It’s as close to space as most of us will get.