By Steven Sheehan.
It’s strange to think, given how famous his story is, there has never been a film biography about Neil Armstrong before now.
We have seen almost everything you can imagine about the moon landing over the years. Yet the story of the guy who took one giant leap for mankind has remained strangely absent.
After missing out at last year’s Oscars in bizarre fashion with La La Land, director Damien Chazelle is having another attempt with First Man.
It functions as a behind the scenes look at the effort that went into sending a manned rocket to the moon. First Man also works as an intimate portrait of the first human to step foot on another planet.
Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong, a man of few words but unbelievable courage. We get immediate sight of that as we soar into the stratosphere in his military aircraft. Then we viscerally rattle and shake with Armstrong as he plummets back to Earth.
Back home his toddler daughter loses her fight against a malignant tumour. As you’d expect he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are completely devastated.
Armstrong’s answer is to throw himself into his work. He applies to become an astronaut and enters the Gemini project. Their bold plan is to build a spaceship that can land on the moon and beat the Russians in the space race.
It’s here he meets fellow trainee includes Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit). Future lunar companion Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) also slowly comes into the picture.
Chazelle doesn’t hide from the tragedies that saw four men die during the testing stage. Doubts about the mission grow as the public start to question the value of the mission given the cost involved.
Whenever we sit in the cockpit of one of the spacecraft you realise how crazy this project was. The screen shakes and vibrates as they shoot off into space placing their lives in the hands of the Gods.
The astronauts could see very little of where they were going at 7 miles per second as they left Earth. Chazelle captures the harsh intensity of space flight and the madness of the mission.
Less successful is the human drama between Armstrong and his wife. Gosling has never had the best emotional range and in theory, that should suit a character who rarely shows any.
But the grainy, 16mm handheld camera spends a lot of time focusing on his face and Gosling reveals little about his inner feelings. He remains a blank canvas and it’s impossible to read what he’s thinking.
That has a knock on effect to Claire Foy who despite being one of the best actresses around today, she barely has anything meaningful to do in the film.
Surprisingly, the moon landing still feels fresh and powerful. Once there, you can’t help but stand back and take in the size of the achievement. The thought of actually standing on another planet simply makes the mind boggle.
With a stronger human connection, First Man could’ve been something special. But despite its faults, the film remains one to catch as Oscar season starts to pick up speed.
First Man is released in UK cinemas nationwide on October 12th.