The life story of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, is so full of astounding courage, tragedy and triumph that it is just begging for an old-school Hollywood biopic, with all the inspiring speeches, swelling orchestras and grand themes that the genre entails. First Man is not that biopic.
Ryan Gosling is the best deadpan actor in the business
Directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and scripted by Josh Singer (Spotlight), the film is an understated, economical drama which, like a rocket that has to escape from the Earth’s gravity, jettisons absolutely everything it doesn’t need. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. Exposition is edited out. Extraneous characters are stripped away to the point that you see almost nothing of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), who moonwalked with Armstrong, and even less of Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), who piloted the orbiting craft. You don’t hear about Armstrong’s Korean War heroics, for that matter, and the space-race politics that were behind Nasa's Apollo programme remain in the background. And yet, as restrained as First Man is, this riveting, exhaustively researched and utterly believable film manages to shake you, take your breath away and even pull a few tears from your eyes.
It takes its tone from Armstrong himself. Played by Ryan Gosling, the best deadpan actor in the business, he is a highly intelligent and skilful pilot who keeps his emotions under tight control, whether he’s hurtling through the sky or drinking a beer in his kitchen. When he talks to his young children, he sounds as if he is conducting a press conference, and when he is at a press conference he sounds as if he is resisting interrogation by foreign agents. He is happily married to Janet (Claire Foy – another actor who can do more with a stare than most actors can with a three-page monologue), but they’re not the most effusive of spouses. And if they ever venture off Nasa property, Chazelle doesn’t let you see it happening.
Perhaps Armstrong’s almost robotic reserve is what’s needed of a lunar explorer. Following him through the 1960s, from the Gemini programme (docking two spacecraft in orbit) to the Apollo programme (reaching the Moon), First Man conveys with overwhelming force how stressful, dangerous and altogether unglamorous it is to test a prototype spacecraft. The astronauts and would-be astronauts are stuffed into tiny spaces, surrounded by sharp-edged metal surfaces, and held in place by the sort of seatbelts used by budget airlines. It’s rare that you see the exterior of any of the planes and rockets in the film. Instead, Chazelle puts you right in the cockpit with Armstrong as he blasts his way through the clouds. The cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, likes to use extreme close-ups that expose every pore and wrinkle, and the sound designer, Ai-Ling Lee, likes to switch between sudden silences and ear-bleeding noise. It’s so intense that even the most routine flight is a bit like being shut in a filing cabinet drawer which is then rolled down a mountain during a thunderstorm.
These test flights can also be fatal. There are two funerals in the film, and several others that take place off screen, so don’t get too attached to any of the characters. When the Apollo programme reaches the stage where a lunar landing can be attempted, Armstrong is chosen as commander not just because of his stout heart and cool head, but because he is one of the few qualified pilots left alive.
It’s sobering to learn about these sacrifices, and yet the film treats them as unsentimentally as Armstrong does. A more obvious approach would have been to pour on the grief on each occasion, but First Man keeps flitting through events with amazing speed and single mindedness. Still, even though it doesn’t dwell on the risks Armstrong is taking, the narrative keeps the viewers in a state of near-constant tension, because he and his wife are in a state of near-constant tension themselves. They both know that he won’t withdraw from the Apollo programme, and they both know that it might well kill him, but they don’t discuss it. These years of unspoken bravery and modesty are ultimately more affecting than the tearful fights and reconciliations you might have expected.
Gosling and Foy’s performances in First Man are probably too unshowy to win awards. But they should, because they could hardly have been bettered. The same goes for the whole of this extraordinary film.