First Man follows the career of Neil Armstrong in the 1960s, from the Gemini launches through to his walk on the moon in 1969. No spoiler alert here as everyone knows he was the first person to walk on the moon and the clue is in the title too. This film, however, is surprisingly thrilling considering you know the ending: there are plenty of shocks on the way.
Neil (Ryan Gosling) is portrayed as a quiet, even monosyllabic man, intent on getting on with the job and doing so in the best possible way. He is not good at making conversation – at the White House for instance – he knows what he knows but finds it hard to express it. He is devastated by the loss of his young daughter to cancer but refuses to talk to anyone about her, even his wife Janet (Claire Foy). We watch his progress through various space missions, notably Gemini 8, when they successfully docked with a space station for the first time but then nearly died, to Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon. The film brilliantly shows the pressures the astronauts are put under. Firstly the physical pressures of being shot up into the air in a claustrophobic metal tube (David Bowie’s Space Oddity springs to mind – ‘Here I am sitting in a tin can, far above the world’ – at one stage Armstrong glances at the bolts holding his ‘tin can’ together), the turbulence and the noise; then there is the pressure of the number of deaths caused by the space programme; we are also shown the protests in America that so much money was being spent on the space programme while ordinary Americans went hungry. What comes across most strongly, though, is the pressure on home life – the difficulty of holding a family together when the husband might not come back from his next mission, as so often happened.
The other point that the film makes, whether deliberately or not, is how primitive these first ‘tin cans’ were and, whatever one thinks of the space programme and its costs, these were brave men indeed. By Apollo 11 there is some computerisation but even that seems primitive today.
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy both have the ability to portray enormous emotion in absolute stillness. Gosling’s reluctant American hero is achingly sad in places but he also shows a steely determination. Foy, with her luminous eyes, is mostly restrained too, so that the couple of times she really gets angry are very effective. She is the vixen fighting for her family. At the end, you are not sure whether the relationship will survive, so much has happened. (In fact, it does for many years, though not forever).
The film, at 140 minutes, is a tad too long: there are some scenes which would have been more effective if they had been cut: however, as a portrayal of the cost, financial and emotional, on the country and the astronauts, it is riveting.