First Man (2018)
We’ve now reached the end of our voyage into cinematic space exploration and it has been quite the trip.
We’ve looked at the fantastical wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its head-scratching philosophising, the real-life grit and sacrifice that took the Mercury Seven past the edge of the Earth in The Right Stuff and we’ve seen the mind-bending majesty that our mission to save humanity might entail with Interstellar. Films that have given us a window on the realities of space exploration’s history and the possibilities of what its future.
However, with this date marking 50 years since the setting foot of humanity upon the lunar surface, there is one film that is the perfect choice to close our feature out. That film is Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a film that tells the story of the man whose one small step turned out to be a giant leap.
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong who in the process of overcoming personal tragedy found himself chosen to perform the historic feat of becoming the first man to set foot on the surface of the Moon.
Taking on the task of depicting such an icon of history would be a daunting task for any actor, yet in my view, with a figure with the distinct personality of Neil Armstrong, I feel that no one but Ryan Gosling could have played this part.
Gosling perfectly captures that quiet and intense focus that Armstrong was said to possess, which, while making him come off as rather emotionally repressed, manages to portray the ferocious determination that was hidden behind the astronauts modest exterior. Yet, Gosling’s performance is very much a layered one, with the actor managing to expertly convey the difficult emotional toll that Armstrong’s work and personal tragedies took on him. An early scene in which Armstrong mourns the passing of his young daughter Karen is particularly moving as he hides away in a room to weep by himself, with Gosling portraying the quiet anguish of a grieving father with grace and subtlety.
Gosling is not alone in delivering a powerful and nuanced performance, with Claire Foy’s much more forceful and strong willed turn as Janet Armstrong serving as a terrific counterbalance to Gosling’s more reserved nature. I especially love the way that we see Foy’s Armstrong storm into NASA HQ and demand they turn Neil’s radio broadcasts back on, angrily decrying them as “a bunch of boys” when they refuse.
It’s a fantastic pair of performances that I honestly feel should, at the very least, gained Gosling and Foy a pair of Oscar nominations.
While the film could be seen as something of a follow-up to The Right Stuff, with many of the same real-life characters from that film reappearing in supporting roles here, the approach taken by Chazelle and his team is less of a sweeping epic and more of a focused character study. After all, it is called First Man, not First Men. Yet, First Man does follow a few similar story beats as The Right Stuff, with it being full of recreations of the various missions that Armstrong took part in, many of which, if this film is to be believed, where all terrifying ordeals in which only his cool-headed approach saved his life from ending in a fiery wreck.
My favourite scene of the whole film and one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever endured is when Armstrong is piloting the Gemini 5 craft and finds himself in a roll, his craft spinning around at increasingly rapid speeds. It’s in this sequence where all the film’s elements perfectly sync, as the tight grainy cinematography (shot on 16mm) creating a sense of intense claustrophobia, combined with the rapid editing and piercing sound design as we back and forth between to the exterior and interior of the craft as it spins ever faster, with Armstrong barely remaining conscious enough to stop it.
Of course, we have to talk about the Moon landing sequence itself and the controversy that engulfed it following the film’s release. Yes, the film does omit a scene of Armstrong explicitly planting the US flag on the lunar surface and I can perhaps see why some might feel that this is perhaps denying or playing down the patriotism of the moment.
However, in my view, what the moment lacks in patriotism (although I feel that the film had no sworn duty to be overtly patriotic) it makes up for it in poignancy. While it would be inspiring and cool to see the flag being planted, it would not have the same emotional resonance as seeing Armstrong gazing upon the lunar surface and thinking not of glory, but instead of his sorely missed daughter. That scene of his letting go of her bracelet into the void of the sea of tranquillity is a moving and tender moment that is, in my view, more powerful than any kind of statement the flag-planting could have made.
With a career-best performance from Ryan Gosling, strong support from Claire Foy and incredible direction from the increasingly brilliant Damien Chazzelle, First Man is a terrific and poignant tribute to the man who made history and it’s the perfect film to watch as we honour his world-changing accomplishment.
Those are my picks for the perfect films to watch as we mark 50 years since the Moon landing. What are your picks dear readers? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @FlickeringMyth…