NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012) rockets into history in a new movie, which tells the deeply personal story of the aeronautical engineer, naval aviator, test pilot and university professor. who became the First Man to take ‘one giant step for man and one great leap for mankind’, stepping onto the Moon for the very first time in human history.
Personally, I found Universal Picture’s First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, intensely compelling viewing. It boldly tells the story behind the amazing vision I watched on television live, back in the day, along with hundreds of millions of people around the world.
A superb cinematic experience, this brilliant tribute to the American ideal and a testament to ideas of patriotism also has a human level as Neil Armstrong along with his wife Janet and children, endeavour to keep a balance in his life, which is nothing less than extraordinary.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers.
For many one small step onto the Moon was indeed costly along the way. The number of tragedies followed by funerals we learn about, as those accepted into the NASA astronaut program slowly master the technical challenges they faced, is often harrowing.
They all cannot fail to have an impact as Neil Armstrong and his colleagues, who lose so many along the way to the attempt itself, have to come to terms with their loss and move on at a rapid rate.
They become a very close knit community, working under the very difficult conditions they do and include Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) Michael Collins (Lukas Haas), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott)
Then there is the loss of his small daughter Karen to cancer, whose brief moments with him on the earth are told in poignant, heart rending detail, until he and his wife Janet lay her tiny little coffin into the earth. It’s a loss he will continue to carry with him all of his life.
Ryan Gosling is riveting as he portrays Neil Armstrong by defining his determined, stoic kind of heroism with great elan.
From the moment where he learns he is to command Apollo 11, for its amazing mission to land on the moon 16th July, 1969, his focus and ability to get the job done is never in doubt. He knows there are risks, but he has every intention of coming back.
One of the most poignant moments is when he is forced by his wife Janet (Claire Foy) to sit down with his two sons, before leaving for the launch, to explain how he may not ever return. She needs him to say goodbye to them, just in case.
He reveals how hard communicating with his family was for him by that point. While his younger son, born after his little sister had died, races to spontaneously hug his father, the older son displaying his father’s quiet, often unreadable reserve, slowly offers his hand for him to shake.
This action also says a great deal about the society of the 60’s where this film is set. At the time, the grief caused by the Great Depression followed by World War II in all its ugliness, the Korean War and Vietnam War, taught generations of children around the world to hold back on displaying their emotions, in fear for their life. My brother and I cannot ever remember being hugged or being told we were loved.
Fifty years on it’s a very different world.
The photography for First Man is often nail-biting, often serene and often very beautiful. When we rock and roll into space we find ourselves sitting in the astronaut’s seat. We feel every bump , while experiencing the terror of the unknown, as we discover first hand the extent of the technical challenges that had to be overcome.
Many wouldn’t know it today, but solving the problems associated with determining longitude based on measuring the motions of the moon, by artisan carpenter turned clockmaker John Harrison during the eighteenth century, aided the astronaut’s journey. He ‘tested the waters of space-time’, wresting the world’s whereabouts from the stars.*
NASA astronaut’s brought to fruition President John Kennedy’s dream for his people, six years after he had been brutally gunned down.
Dominic Chazelle sensitive concern for his actors, encourages from them all great performances, no matter how small the role. Claire Foy however, is a stand out as Janet, Neil’s first wife, in what is a difficult role.
He emboldens Ryan Gosling, who reflects the First Man’s well-documented dare devil streak, which runs very deep and is mostly realized in the silence of space. He also employs every muscle of his face to reflect the depth and intensity of his character’s feelings, which are always kept in check, except when his baby daughter dies and he collapses crying with grief.
Even at that terrible point, he’s full of grace.
Then there is his projection of Neil Armstrong’s recorded wry sense of humour, his extraordinary calm when all the odds are stacked against him as Commander, as well as his obsession; checking and double checking the math to ensure his and his fellow astronaut’s safe return from their journey into the unknown.
When he does take his final step onto the Moon, we go with Neil Armstrong all the way, slowly and assuredly as we finally begin to understand why the sacrifices, sorrows and failures were worth it to the men, who exceeded all boundaries, as they boldly went where no man had ever gone before.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
FIRST MAN, images courtesy Universal Pictures. *Longitude by Dava Sobel