Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human race. On July 20th 1969 astronauts from NASA’s Apollo 11 mission touched down on the surface of the moon; shortly afterwards Neil Armstrong stepped outside the lunar module and became the first man to set foot on the moon’s cold, lifeless soil. One small step. Damien Chazelle’s latest film is the thrilling, captivating, utterly engaging story of that first man, the story of a man driven by tragedy but possessed by a quiet and ferocious determination to do the impossible against almost inconceivable odds.
First Man isn’t really the story of the Apollo programme (or its trail-blazing Gemini predecessor). Even though the Apollo 11 mission is magnificently recreated with a level of realism which blurs the line between factual reconstruction and fictional artifice, it’s very much the story of Neil Armstrong the man and how the challenges of his early life led him to the greatest challenge of all. History records that Armstrong was a withdrawn, quiet and a rather taciturn man – a role the equally-taciturn Ryan Gosling might well have been born to play. When we meet him, he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) watch hopefully as their infant daughter Karen undergoes treatment for brain cancer. Tragically the tot dies, but her death quietly galvanises Armstrong who soon enrols on the Project Gemini programme which eventually leads him out into the stars. But a wedge seems to exist between Neil and Janet; Neil will never speak about the lost child, and he keeps his feelings close to his chest, revealing them only in quiet, private moments.
As the 1960s wear on, the Space Race quickens its pace, and when the Soviet Union completes the first EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) in space, NASA embarks upon the Apollo programme with a view to getting an expedition on the moon by the end of the decade. Armstrong cheats death on several occasions, not least when the Gemini 8 spins out of control shortly after docking with the unmanned Agena target vehicle (used for training to help astronauts master rendezvous and docking manoeuvres in space) and when Apollo 1 is destroyed by fire, killing several of his close friends. Eventually, with Neil remaining distant and focused on his mission to the exclusion of everything and everyone else (although there are some beautiful moments of joyous, playful unity with Neil, Janet and their two sons behaving like any normal family), Neil is selected as the leader of the moon-bound Apollo 11 mission. The night before he leaves for Cape Canavaral, Janet’s pent-up frustration explodes as she demands that he finds the time to sit down and speak to his two sons and to tell them that he might not return from his mission. He complies with huge reluctance, but the conversation is conducted like a cold and impersonal interview panel.
Everyone knows of the triumph of the Apollo 11 mission and Chazelle – surely one of Hollywood’s most exciting ‘new’ directors - delivers all the nervy thrill and excitement of the journey. He goes to great pains to remind us that these capsules were little better than tin tubs, rattling and creaking like an old bus, held together with quivering rivets and screws, and controlled and monitored by machines with less computing power than the average modern electronic can-opener. A special (or even spacial) mention here, too, for Justin Hurwitz’s sensational score, pulsating and throbbing during the moon landing sequences and, earlier on, making use of the eerie, discordant sounds of the theremin; his music is soft, understated and tuneful and full of punch-the-air tones and cues.
The real-life Neil Armstrong embarked on a little off-mission jaunt to the West Crater during the Apollo 11 moon landing. No one knows exactly what he did there. Chazelle has used dramatic licence to suggest that he might possibly have done something very wonderful and incredibly emotional; Armstrong passed away in 2012 so we’ll never know, and we can only hope it was something as poignant, touching and tear-jerking as Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer have dared to suggest. Back on Earth, Armstrong, in quarantine for three weeks, is reunited behind cold glass with his defiantly proud wife. No words are spoken between them. They don’t need words. Neither will you. We barely have the right ones. First Man is a towering, breath-taking cinematic achievement. Miss it at your peril.
REVIEW: FIRST MAN / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: DAMIEN CHAZELLE / SCREENPLAY: JOSH SINGER / STARRING: RYAN GOSLING, CLAIRE FOY, COREY STOLL, KYLE CHANDLER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW