Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man has to be experienced on the big screen, ideally IMAX. Having said that, the IMAX format scenes are limited to the moon landing sequence; much of the film is shot on grainy 16mm film in a Cinéma vérité style, as if someone with a home movie camera had been in Armstrong’s home or with him inside the claustrophobic space capsule. There have been quite a few memorable films made about space exploration – The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys come immediately to mind – but this is perhaps the first one to give the audience a real appreciation of what an astronaut experiences durng a space flight. Being violently shaken about inside a dark metal box, on top of a rocket that is generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust is both terrifying and exhausting. One can only marvel at the physical strength and the nerves of steel that these astronauts had, especially in the early days of space exploration when accidents and fatalities were common.
Ryan Gosling is the perfect choice for this film; an understated actor to play an introverted, understated man. The cast is filled out with a host of powerful actors. The Crown’s Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong; she had to calmly manage home and family in the glare of the public eye while keeping the fear and anxiety bottled up under the surface. Jason Clarke, one of my favourite character actors has a significant role as astronaut Ed White, a close colleague of Armstrong’s who tragically died in a fire during a systems check for the Apollo mission. Corey Stoll (the villain in Ant-Man) plays Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s partner on the Apollo 11 moon landing; Armstrong is a bit frosty towards the brash and outspoken Aldrin in the early stages of their association, but the two professionals work together seamlessly while on the Apollo 11 mission.
Justin Hurwitz has composed the music for all of Damien Chazelle’s films; Whiplash and La La Land were both films built around the theme of music and he was able to work with a consistent musical style throughout. In First Man, I think he had a tougher task and the 33-year-old does a wonderful job alternating between soft melodious passages for the intimate, introspective scenes at Armstrong’s home and the powerful, epic sounds needed for the moon landing.
I mentioned the cinematography earlier; once again, all credit to Swede Linus Sandgren for some truly amazing imagery. He won the Oscar for best cinematography earlier this year for La La Land and is a shoe-in to be nominated for First Man as well. One wouldn’t imagine that both films were shot by the same person; he has completely adapted the equipment and the style of photography to suit each film’s subject matter and tone.
The film was so engrossing and gripping that I didn’t realize that 2 hours and 20 minutes had gone by. There is not a single scene that seems superfluous or indulges the director’s own artistic needs. Credit for this perfect pacing must go to Tom Cross, the editor who won an Oscar in 2015 for his work on Chazelle’s Whiplash and will surely be recognized for this film as well.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading test pilot Scott Crossfield’s memoirs called Always Another Dawn. Crossfield was the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound and was the primary test pilot on the X-15 hypersonic plane which was the technological stepping stone for the American space program. X-15 pilots flew so high (above 100,000 ft) that they technically qualified as astronauts! The opening scene of First Man shows Neil Armstrong completing an X-15 flight. Both Crossfield and Armstrong worked at NACA – the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which operated all the experimental aircraft in the 1950s and 60s and was the predecessor to NASA. Reading the book has given me an additional appreciation of the men who paved the way for space flight and for much of the advances in modern day aeronautics. Many of them were qualified engineers who combined brains, brawn, personal ethics and courage in a way that I don’t think we see much of today. Truly a generation of heroes.
Coincidentally, I just finished watching Hulu’s 8-episode first season of The First, which chronicles preparation for the first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Starring Sean Penn and Natasha McElhone (who had 2 big movies 20 years ago in 1998 – Ronin and The Truman Show), this is a glossy narrative, visually very different from First Man, but the themes and some of the story beats are similar – administrators having to justify the enormous cost of a space mission to politicians and the public, astronauts managing personal relationships and their own anxieties prior to a voyage from which they may not return. The pacing of The First is inconsistent, but the performances from the leads are top notch, with the 58-year-old Sean Penn still playing the intense, angry man after all these years and looking incredibly fit and bulked up for the role.
In an age when we experience other worlds through the safety of smartphones and VR goggles, both First Man and The First remind us of the physical and emotional dangers associated with real exploration.