First Man Is A Restrained And Intimate Study Into The Life Of A Private Hero

Credit: Universal Studios/Dreamworks

La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Neil Armstrong shows he can bring substance as well as style in this documentary-style offering. Adapted by Josh Singer from the book by James Hansen and starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong) and an impressive supporting cast is a quiet, restrained, almost private look at the life of a quiet, restrained, private man never comfortable with fame.

The film has been attacked in the US for not showing the act of planting the American flag on the Moon, but this attack misses the point of the film entirely. Although inviting comparison to Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, it’s really not a film about America winning the ‘space race’ goal of reaching the Moon first. It’s definitely not a flag-waving Hollywood effects extravaganza, even though the film’s $60m is all on-screen.

Gosling admirably portrays a man who shuts his emotional self away from the world following the death of his toddler daughter from cancer. He becomes almost awkward even with his own family, unable to communicate his emotions openly, and only really comfortable in the arena of his work: first as a test pilot and then as a NASA astronaut.

The torturous, agonizingly slow winching down into the grave of daughter Karen’s coffin signals a change from happy, loving father to the withdrawn, almost distant man whose self restraint serves him well in his work but strains his family life. His grief-stricken sobbing, privately in his study after his daughter’s funeral, is the only time we see him give in to his emotions.

Chazelle’s use of 16mm for the family parts of the film works beautifully. The scenes of the astronauts’ children playing in the pool have the Ektachrome glow of early 60’s home movies. The switch to 70mm IMAX for the Moon scenes gives crystal-clear depth to the majestic, lonely vista reflected in Armstrong’s gold visor.

Chazelle outlined every aspect of the movie from visuals to sound before Academy Award winner Paul Lambert’s effects team got their hands on it. Lambert wanted to do as much work in-camera as possible, a decision which led to constructing the world’s biggest ever LED screen to give the best possible quality effects shots with the minimum of post-production CG addition.

And the results are well worth the effort. The opening sequence of Armstrong’s near-disastrous X-15 test flight is as real and as scary as you’ll get without doing it yourself – and I’d rather not go bouncing off the upper atmosphere in person, thanks. The shaky, claustrophobic sequences here and in the rest of the film might leave you squirming, if not slightly motion-sick, they feel so real.

The film has moments that leave you choked, like the lowering of Karen’s coffin, and the death of Armstrong’s fellow astronaut and best friend Ed White in the Apollo 1 test disaster that took the lives of Ed, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee when a spark ignited the capsule’s oxygen saturated atmosphere. One affecting moment is on the moon, where Armstrong drops his daughter’s bracelet, letting it tumble slowly away into the darkness of a crater.

A particularly poignant moment is the night before Armstrong leaves for the Apollo 11 assignment that will see him stand on the Moon. Unwilling to communicate with his sons until wife Janet insists, he eventually admits to them that he might not return. Afterwards his eldest son, instead of hugging his father, shakes his hand, as though preparing to take on the role of Man Of The House in the event his father dies. It’s a moment that stays with you as much as Armstrong’s hesitant first step onto the pristine surface of a new world.

It’s a film that will leave you moved and breathless, and is well worth a visit to the cinema.

Carolyn Hucker