Biographical films of individuals renowned for their heroic achievements have always presented a dilemma for filmmakers. Do they whitewash the life of the subject to present an unrelenting hagiography—as Richard Attenborough did with Gandhi? Do they dig deeper to demystify the subject by unravelling their deficiencies and imperfections—as Spielberg did with Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List? Will the depiction of the inadequacies and shortcomings diminish the reputation of the subject or will it present a more relatable, maybe inspiring hero because of their achievements despite their flaws?
Neil Armstrong has always been presented to us as an all-American hero who was the first man to set foot on the moon. But the makers of First Man—directed by Damien Chazelle—are not focused on Armstrong the folk hero. It’s widely known that Armstrong did not approve of being regarded as a celebrity. The movie is based on Armstrong’s official biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong and focuses on his humanity. In the movie, Armstrong is inconsolably bereaved by the loss of his three-year-old daughter to cancer, such that he is often haunted by the images of his departed daughter. He becomes almost pathologically introverted, unable to have simple conversations with his colleagues or develop connections with his long-suffering wife and children.
For Armstrong, this space odyssey becomes an obsession—perhaps because it is both literally and metaphorically an escape from his earthly woes. A consistent theme in this film is mortality: in addition to the passing of his young daughter, we hear Armstrong talk about losing his co-workers in accidents in the past. He is engulfed by unspeakable trauma as he learns of the deaths of his fellow astronauts when imperfect space flight technology used for space simulation goes awry. Another theme is loneliness: apart from Armstrong’s isolation, his wife Janet—who is deeply emotional—finds herself consistently left alone to deal with her pain, even when she is surrounded by people at parties. And there is the ultimate isolation of the astronaut being hurtled into space.
This isn’t Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where poetic images of space are coupled with ethereal music, making it a more of a tranquil journey to heaven. We’re instead presented with a headache-inducing, clattering, nauseating and perilous spacecraft where the astronaut is trapped inside, unsure of his fate as he embarks on a journey to another world. The voyage is as petrifying as it is exhilarating.
The film also covers the public reaction to the now-celebrated mission, when the United States was exploding with anti-Vietnam war protests and racial injustice. We hear a rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s poem Whitey on the Moon which makes the incredibly expensive space journey rather futile when the world is experiencing unspeakable suffering.
Despite the momentousness of what it’s depicting, there’s a commendable simplicity in the film’s narration. There are no lengthy dialogues, no contrived cliffhangers, no easy claptraps. First Man skips gratuitous doses of adrenaline and any display of jingoism—we don’t even see the famous planting of the flag on the moon. We aren’t given much about the genesis of the famous Armstrong quote—“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—which has often led people to think of Armstrong as a man of poetic and philosophical sensibilities. Even the landing on the moon is presented with remarkable restraint, adding to the movie’s authenticity.
This understated form of storytelling is, in many ways, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary but uncomplicated workmanlike quality in filmmaking, where straightforwardness is key. Interestingly, in early 2003, Eastwood’s production company bought the film rights to the Armstrong biography upon which this movie is based.
The sound effects and the nuanced background score by Justin Hurwitz coupled with Linus Sandgren’s detailed and varied cinematography makes this film work in depicting the embryo-like space crafts, the boundless skies and the homes of the astronauts where peril perpetually looms. Keeping with the film’s tone, Ryan Gosling is equally restrained, allowing his eyes and countenance to convey his emotions. Gosling’s Armstrong seems like a long-simmering pot unable to boil over. Claire Foy, despite her limited screentime, is effective as the thankless wife who is the emotional anchor and heart of the film. Foy is in top form when, out of sheer exasperation, she almost orders her emotionally-closed husband to have a conversation about the dangers of his moon mission. The supporting cast that includes Ciarán Hinds, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll and Kyle Chandler also does rather well. There’s even a brief appearance by Lukas Haas, known mainly as his role as the child witness alongside Harrison Ford in Witness.
Director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer deserve to be commended for adeptly depicting the complex elements of this story and for keeping its focus on the intricacies of humanity and the boundless mysteries of space. To truly enjoy the film’s breadth and the depth, it has to be watched on the biggest possible screen.