Has anybody got a Swiss Army knife?
Neil Armstrong's 1969 moonwalk is such a celebrated part of modern history that we tend to view it as having been inevitable. There's a clearer sense of drama in the disastrous Apollo 13 mission than in the moondust-stirring success of 11, which is presumably why the former was celebrated in cinema screen twenty-three years before Armstrong's 'giant leap for mankind'. And yet the logistics of Sixties NASA landing a manned craft on the lunar surface were so precarious that viewed correctly the event seems truly miraculous. Director Damien Chazelle gets that - only one of the reasons why his film First Man is such a magnificent experience.
Based on James R. Hansen's Armstrong biography, the movie has a much broader scope than Apollo 11, charting as it does the NASA space program from the early Sixties through the eyes of its brooding protagonist. Armstrong was recruited from the US Air Force's human spaceflight program (a terrifying adventure in its own right) and trained in the NASA Astronaut Corps for almost a decade, surviving more than one brush with death prior to his 'one small step'. He also - along with his wife - absorbed personal tragedy, an element woven tightly into the fabric of the story here. First Man tells of colossal scientific achievements, but never loses the intimate connection with its central character.
Director Chazelle has already matched ambition with talent in films such as Whiplash and last year's Oscar-baiting La La Land, but here he surpasses both (to my mind) with something truly colossal. So much in First Man is beautifully judged, like the grainy look of its earthbound scenes, reminiscent of the era's colour news footage. The film is steeped in period detail, often with a convincing documentary feel - that's until we break through into space and IMAX high-definition steals our breath, restoring a sense of wonder that the moon-landing happened at all. There's a ramshackle nuts-and-bolts quality to how space travel is portrayed here, much of it putting us in Armstrong's gravity boots, while his tin-can vessel screeches and rattles like it's about to break apart. Nothing is sleek about these rocket missions - they're experiences in raw terror and desperate seat-of-the-pants ingenuity.
The movie is thoughtful and melancholy as well as dynamic, courtesy of screen writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight, countless West Wing episodes), while Justin Hurwitz's graceful, theremin-tinged score underpins the drama perfectly. Lead actors Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are both an understated kind of excellent. Gosling's Armstrong is strong and silent to a fault - a focused, driven man who buries all his negative emotions deep. It's to the actor's credit that we sense those feelings burning there as he takes a devastating phone-call or straps himself in for a dicey rocket-trip. Foy meanwhile embodies the stoic astronaut's wife - keeping the family together and giving vent when necessary to the fears and frustrations building up beneath. The subtlety of their scenes together is fascinating, the moments where she cuts loose with emotion a blessed relief.
The cast is filled out too with great character turns - Kyle Chandler as businesslike Apollo mission chief Deke Slayton, Jason Clarke as Armstrong's empathetic friend and fellow-astronaut Ed White and Corey Stoll as the outspoken 'Second Man' Buzz Aldrin. They bring a striking authenticity to it all - the sense of purpose, the calm under pressure and the sublimated fear of disaster. (Occasionally those worst fears are terribly realised.)
First Man shies from little. It tangles with the politics surrounding manned space flight, questions the ethics of pursuing such dangerous goals and exposes these pioneers' fallibility. But it also recaptures a sense of wonder at events rendered safely familiar by crackly news footage (particularly for those of us too young to remember when they actually happened). The depiction of that first moon mission is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as anything in science-fiction. Forget that manufactured controversy over whether or not we see the US flag being planted. This is about a moment that captured the global imagination and the enigmatic man who took that legendary first step.
Engrossed - and then absorbed - and then just overawed. I actively moment-to-moment loved this.
Where Are the Women?: Sixties NASA was male-fronted (watch Hidden Figures to see the crucial role played by the girls). Claire Foy has room to be terrific, however, in what goes way beyond the old-style wife-girlfriend role.
Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. I'm going to write a feature soon on what constitutes a Filmic Forays 10/10 - but I'm pretty sure it's this plus reflection-time. To everyone's taste? I'm guessing not. But for me every frame became a joy in this stratosphere-busting film achievement. Bravo.