“That’s one small step for man, but one giant step for mankind.”Neil Armstrong turned and set his left boot on the lunar surface at 02:56 UTC July 21, 1969, then spoke this world-famous epigram.
Today, after exactly 50 years from that day, I bring to you the latest space movie and amazingly the first feature film about Armstrong (whom most of us know only by these lines or by the smiling flying ace in the NASA-approved profiles).
“First Man,” based on the book by James R. Hansen with a script by Josh Singer, is a worthy successor not only to Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” but to the astronaut films that precede it, like “Apollo 13″ and especially “The Right Stuff.”
Ryan Gosling, who previously co-starred in Chazelle’s Oscar-winning musical La La Land, plays Armstrong, but not as we know the Apollo-11 hero. We see him instead as a deeply private man, one whose robotic self-discipline masked the pain of family tragedy that followed him to the moon and back.
Gosling’s task here is not merely to portray a mythical American hero. He also has to play a man who famously kept his emotions in check. That may not be an asset for a movie character but sure was an asset for the first human to set foot on another world.
It was not at all an easy job for Canadian actor Gosling. His resemblance to Armstrong isn’t great and his utterances of such famous lines as “The Eagle has landed” and “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” can easily be compared to the real thing via YouTube.
But his serious portrayal of Armstrong impresses nonetheless, as he endures setback after setback — including near-fatal mishaps with jet planes, the Gemini 8 space-docking mission, and a lunar landing test vehicle — on the long road to the moon.
In 1962, shortly before the Korean War vet and test pilot applied to be an astronaut, Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), lost their 2-year-old daughter, Karen, to complications from a brain tumour. It is here that Chazelle and First Man screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) stretches the known facts for the sake of drama, that the burden of Karen’s death contributed greatly to Armstrong’s solitary nature and his single-minded dedication to his work.
His grief over his daughter’s fate will remain a theme of the film until the end. But it remains unspoken, even to his stoic wife, Janet, played here with subtlety and grit by the wonderful Claire Foy.
One can say that First Man finds its beating heart in Foy’s emphatic portrayal of Janet Armstrong, the long-suffering spouse Neil left to raise their two young sons as he trained to roam the cosmos. There’s a real “Oscar moment” in a scene where Janet demands that Neil show some courage and responsibility and tell his sons Rick (Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett) that the moon mission he’s about to embark on is filled with danger and that he might not be coming home.
Chazelle never lets us forget that this is a movie about the moon: his camera frequently tilts skywards, as composer Justin Hurwitz’s score envelopes the action in a dreamy aura. But Chazelle favours claustrophobic close-ups and jittery ShakyCam (which is very distracting) over revealing wide shots until we get to the moon.
Then there’s the grace, calm and near silence of observing a fantastic new world with the rapt eyes of the explorers whom First Man thrillingly recalls and honours.
One of the moments in the film that really stands out for me is when Armstromg successfully docks his spacecraft with another before suffering a harrowing in-flight emergency. The split-second that separates giddy success from terrifying failure, the tiny, claustrophobic spaces, the flimsy materials, the shaking, the panic — Chazelle illustrates all of this, ineffaceably.
On the ground, meanwhile, we see what it’s like to be a loved one. During Gemini, Janet explodes at Armstrong’s boss, Deke Slayton (an excellent Kyle Chandler): “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have ANYTHING under control.”
Another of the more chilling scenes is a brief look at NASA bosses reviewing the speech Nixon will give if the men can’t get off the moon, and what he’ll say to the “soon-to-be widows.”
And how can we forget about the main mission, the moon landing? That famous walk to the launchpad, the astronauts waving, the applause. You have seen it all before and heard about much more in these fifty years. You hold your breath imagining how Chazelle and his cinematographer Linus Sangren (who won the best cinematographer in La La Land) will pull off the landing itself. With the huge, sculpted granite quarry in Georgia standing in for the moonscape, it’s as grand and beautiful as you’d want. And yet it’s not a mere recreation of what we’ve seen before.
The film made two bold choices which are why this movie feels even bigger. After the grandeur of the moon landing, an event that still boggles the mind, the movie ends on a note of extreme quiet: just two people staring at each other. Is it a bold choice? Yes. But it feels right. Sometimes a movie feels biggest when it goes small.
One of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s most famous achievements was planting the American flag on the lunar surface, an act of historic significance that this during the Cold War is a reminder of genuine American pride. Chazelle left that salient fact out of the film, which has caused a great deal of controversy and led to a staunch refusal by many patriotic moviegoers to see the film at all.
Even the Armstrong family has gone on record protesting the deletion of that scene, but the man’s unimpeachable heroism is a good reason to make a film about him regardless of the liberties taken. These controversies are silly for many reasons, but especially because this isn’t a movie about symbols or myths.
It’s about men — especially one man, the first one.