There aren’t that many events within living memory that can accurately be said to have changed the world: the Second World War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invention of the iPhone.
And then there’s the literal out-of-this-world event of July 21, 1969, when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. First Man, based on the book of the same name by James Hansen, tells the story of how Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) got there – and just how much it cost him and his peers.
We all know that no one can hear you scream in space, but the first thing that strikes you about this movie is just how LOUD it is, amplified by those IMAX speakers. Opening with a test flight that almost goes disastrously wrong, we are pitched smack into the middle of it all, amid the roar of the engines and the rattle of the aircraft. In that tiny space, it feels like you can barely breathe.
The camera remains tightly focused on Armstrong’s face, locked in an expression of grim determination. In fact, First Man almost has the feel of a home movie, with its tight, intimate angles and close ups and sepia-tinted images. It’s also somewhat reminiscent of Dunkirk (see our review), in that the audio quality brings it to the next level.
“When you get a different vantage point, you get a different perspective,” says Armstrong solemnly to a group of senior NASA men assessing him. As so it goes, as the space pioneer spends much of the movie looking like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It’s a heaviness that remains throughout the film and makes it difficult to watch at times. Even Apollo 13, which was about a failed space mission and a life or death situation, was lighter in tone.
But it’s no wonder – almost at the start of the film, it’s revealed that a family tragedy defined much of Armstrong’s life. Added to the fact that the space programme was a highly dangerous endeavour that claimed many lives, including those of Armstrong’s friends, and that much-vaunted perspective does indeed change.
Director Damien Chazelle is no stranger to intense character studies, given his previous work with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons on Whiplash (see our review). The Cold War rivalry which fuelled the space race between the Americans and the Russians and the social tensions of the 1960s fade into the background, and the taut relationship between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) comes to the fore.
“I married Neil because I wanted a normal life,” laments Janet, as she watches her husband withdraw deeper and deeper into himself and his friends give their lives for the space programme. Foy and Gosling have a fine chemistry, expressed in taut, meaningful glances and the ever-present fear that their children may grow up without a father.
It all goes on just a little bit too long, but when we finally get to the Moon, the journey is more than worth it. In the end, it’s the late John F. Kennedy’s words that sum it all up: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
First Man opens in Singapore. Let us know what you think of the movie!