First Man looks at America’s pursuit of a manned moon mission in the 60s from the perspective of the Armstrong family. It follows Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey from test pilot to the first man to leave his boot print in the lunar dust (spoiler: they make it). Yet we are also given a focus on family, and the effects it has on Armstrong’s then wife Janet (Claire Foy), as she tries to raise a family under both the glare of the media and the knowledge that any small miscalculation could claim her husband’s life.
There is a profound deliberateness to director Damien Chazelle’s (La La Land, Whiplash) approach. He goes out of his way to break from the conventions of the genre, forcing us to look at the Space Race in a different perspective. From the very first shots, the camera is held in tight to the actors, focusing us as the audience on the astronauts. It lessens the fetishisation of the technology. The ships are not just these marvels of industrial engineering, they are these claustrophobic metal cans, bolted together and hurtled through the atmosphere. This is used to great effect to increase our tension. Each groan of heating metal, or shudder of the ship making us acutely aware of the precariousness of the situation, and the threat to life and limb. We are reminded that it is the men, as much as the profound engineering that we are beholden to for this wondrous event. Chazelle holds this approach for the first half of the film, really only breaking away from it when he must – both to show the goals of the Gemini 8 mission, and to set the landscape for the drama that is about to occur.
His reasoning for this is simple: First Man is about the personal sacrifice that is required for this achievement. Even here the film is obtuse, with Gosling giving us a character that is so contained as to be almost emotionally shut down, save for a couple of moments of volcanic release. His Armstrong is not the all American hero – socially uncomfortable, prone to over analysis, but determined and calculating. Foy works as a counterpoint to this, as Janet compensates for Neil’s shortfalls, but neither leaving us in doubt as to the toll it is taking on her. Both performances are incredibly solid, conveying a wealth of emotional nuance without requiring to be overly theatrical.
In the end First Man might rely on what is likely an apocryphal event to give us our emotional climax, but we are aware of the cost, emotionally, physically and personally to the participants and families of this real life monumental achievement of the moon landing. The result is an amazing film, that has a different trajectory to many of its ilk, but still allows us to experience that wonder.