THE MOST DANGEROUS MISSION IN HISTORY.
He broke through with a fierce drama about a young man with an exceptional musical talent. He followed it up with a masterful musical. And now he continues to impress with an ambitious film about Neil Armstrong and the mission to put a man on the moon. Damien Chazelle has become a Hollywood darling – even if he got Fox News rightwingers up in arms over not including a shot of the astronauts planting the American flag on the moon.
In the early 1960s, after President Kennedy’s announcement that before the end of the decade the United States will put a man on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot for the recently established NASA. As he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are trying to overcome the grief after losing their young daughter Karen to cancer, Armstrong is selected for Project Gemini that will eventually result in a two-man spacecraft. In 1966, he’s part of the crew in Gemini 8, a mission that takes him into orbit around the Earth; after achieving the first-ever docking between two spacecraft in orbit, the mission suffers a serious technical mishap, but the astronauts are nevertheless brought safely back to Earth.
There will be more critical accidents though, and when Armstrong’s selected to command the Apollo 11 mission to the moon there’s a very real risk that he won’t come back…
In the late 1990s, Neil Armstrong had no interest in having his story chronicled in a book. He had already turned down several prominent writers, but when James R. Hansen approached him and proved that he knew the subject of aviation well, Armstrong eventually agreed to talk to him. That’s typical of a famously reclusive man who didn’t enjoy the spotlight or talking about himself. Screenwriter Josh Singer makes a point out of that, depicting the marriage between the Armstrongs and their relationship with the kids as somewhat marked by Neil’s inability to show emotions in public; a particularly strong moment in the film is the last night on Earth before the mission to the moon when Janet forces Neil to sit down and have a conversation with the two boys who might lose their father in the coming days.
That sequence features exceptional performances from Gosling, who has the difficult challenge of turning Armstrong into a compelling character, and Foy who plays the traditionally thankless role of ”the wife”. Singer has made an effort to portray Armstrong’s family and personal life in a more heartfelt and authentic way than we’ve seen in many similar films; we do get the feeling that everybody involved gives a damn not only about the technical aspects of the lunar mission, but the people whose lives were affected. Still, it is also a technically dazzling experience with superior cinematography by Linus Sandgren who really makes us feel how claustrophobic (and dangerous) those early flights were, with astronauts having very few options to save themselves if something went wrong.
We’ve seen the surface of the moon before in movies, but this time Sandgren offers stunning views of the sandy, gray landscape and the filmmakers invite us to share the overwhelming emotions Armstrong must have experienced up there; it’s an unforgettable part of the movie. Justin Hurwitz delivers another terrific music score for a Chazelle movie, echoing nostalgia for a long-gone era.
Only American conservatives could get upset over the lack of a scene where the flag is planted on the moon. They may need it spelled out for them, but the rest of us do understand that this film is a magnificent tribute to an outstanding American, and human, achievement.
First Man 2018-U.S. 141 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Screenplay: Josh Singer. Book: James R. Hansen. Cinematography: Linus Sandgren. Music: Justin Hurwitz. Cast: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Ed White), Claire Foy (Janet Shearon), Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott… Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Ciarán Hinds.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Steven Spielberg. At one point, Clint Eastwood considered directing the film.
Last word: “The biggest inspiration I’ve gotten from in trying to put this movie together and about how it should look and feel has been going back to the original documentary footage of these missions and the kind of imagery that you would get from these astronauts who weren’t professional photographers or film makers, but would bring either Hasselblad still cameras or little 16mm film cameras or what not and capture these incredible images that to me are very different from we think of as space today. We think of space today as very kind of clean and sort of sleek and spare and high tech and this was anything but, these are kind of machines that look more like World War II era machines.” (Chazelle, EmmanuelLevy.com)