Warning: This review contains minor spoilers…
Not since 1995 and the release of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 have cinema-going space fans been as excited as they are now, with the general release of Damien Chazelle’s much anticipated Neil Armstrong biopic First Man just days away. Scheduled to open on 12 October, the story was adapted by Josh Singer from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee James R. Hansen.
Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong – in a role that after his sublime performance in Blade Runner 2049 – it’s clear he was the only real choice for. Claire Foy, plays his wife Janet and an impressive supporting cast includes Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Jason Clarke as Ed White and Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell.
Chazelle once again focuses on one of his favorite cinematic themes: obsession. Armstrong was unwavering in his devotion to each and every mission and his supremely focused and single-minded, almost robot-like composure, saved his life on more than one occasion.
The movie starts with one such example of this: Armstrong’s sixth X-15 test flight on April 20, 1962 and an incident that has gone down in folklore with test pilots at Edwards AFB. It’s a thrilling, beautifully filmed opening set piece that sets the tone straight away.
The instrumental score by Justin Hurwitz – in more than one place – was reminiscent of the wonderful soundtrack by Philip Sheppard to the series Moon Machines and like that underrated TV show, the music is utilized to great effect in this movie. James Horner’s beautiful score to Apollo 13 (he’s done the best movie soundtracks ever – Star Trek II, Uncommon Valor and Aliens to name just three) even with the addition of Annie Lenox’s soft, floating voice, simply wouldn’t feel right with this movie.
In addition to using Hurwitz once again (their fourth collaboration), Chazelle has also opted to again employ other members of his Academy Award-winning team including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and the result is as far away from Tom Hanks in space as you can imagine.
The portrayal of Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission stylishly illustrates this. Throughout the movie, a grainy visual texture is used to give the picture more personality and history. There’s even a documentary feel to the camera movement The dark, empty void of space is also something that’s emphasized by having the Gemini interior lit in such a way to really give it a moody, dramatic quality compared to the much more clinical look and feel of Apollo 13. The blackness of space is matched by the silence of space as Chazelle reminds us less is often so much more.
The action is restricted almost entirely to the point-of-view of the astronauts themselves; the movie shies away from exterior and panoramic shots that the astronauts weren’t privy to. The terrifying things they see and hear during their missions and their reactions are captured to great effect with little more than good acting and good photography. Exposition and extraneous dialogue isn’t required and isn’t used.
There has been talk that First Man might be a contender for awards season and quite rightly so. However, despite the fact that Gosling was born to play this role, Foy is outstanding as Armstrong’s wife, since she is considerably more outgoing with her emotions and there is surely a nomination for best supporting actress on the horizon.
As the story develops, we are drawn deeper into Armstrong’s psyche for this is not a story about the US space program or even one particular mission, this is a story about just one man and his enviable ability to compartmentalize his fear and maintain an even strain, despite death being no more than one minor mistake away. A wonderfully well-written scene where Janet demands that Neil tell his children there is a possibility he might not come back from the Apollo 11 mission illustrates the downside of his unique ability as the only way he can deal with it is to treat it like he’s taking questions at a press conference.
This is a man who has been forced to deal with so much death, from within his own family to his fellow pilots. Janet explains to Ed White and his wife, Pat (Olivia Hamilton) in the car following the wake for astronaut Theodore Freeman that one year at Edwards, they had to mourn the loss of four of their friends. “We got really good at funerals that year,” she says.
Armstrong’s relationship with the other Gemini astronauts is touched upon, but not over-stated. His friendship with Ed White for example and the awful accident with Apollo 1 meant Armstrong had more tragedy to deal with. Any ordinary man might have buckled by now and yet he continued to put himself in the most dangerous predicaments possible. Thankfully the Aldrin/Apollo 11 issue is left behind and rightly so, it would’ve detracted from the story and Corey Stoll’s performance does its job. In such stark contrast, Aldrin understood the historical significance of what was going to happen, but to Armstrong it was simply a mission objective.
When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Ryan Gosling said in an interview, “I think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible. I might have cognitive bias, [but] I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero. From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”
Even knowing how the story ends doesn’t make their flights less thrilling or failures less frustrating. You’ll be glued to the screen from start to finish, so we would highly recommend you watch this on the biggest screen possible – an IMAX. The unpolished realism of the cinematography combined with the superlative sound design truly put you inside the violently shaking cockpit, sharing the same terrifying experience that Armstrong seemed so well to just take in his stride.
First Man opens in cinemas on October 12th.
As Gosling says, so many people made the moon landings possible…and we strongly suggest that after watching this memorizing movie, you go and watch the beautiful story of another of the key Apollo components…
Scott Snowden is MyM’s US Editor. Follow him on Twitter.
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