Helen Tope reviews First Man, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Thursday (tickets available here).
The challenge in making a film about space travel is how to make it human. Astonishing technical feats; pilots at the peak of mental and physical perfection – excellence may be laudable, but it’s not always watchable.
Director Damien Chazelle squares up to this challenge in First Man; a film that gets to the heart of the Space Race. Here we find not just brilliance, but courage and fallibility. It is a beautifully balanced piece of work, detailing just what it took to put Man on the Moon.
Starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, we join the Space Race in 1961. Armstrong is focused not on the technological battle between America and Russia, but a fight much closer to home.
His young daughter, Karen, is suffering from a brain tumour. The treatments of the 1960’s are primitive and largely ineffective. X-rays are used to slow the growth of the tumour, but the deck is stacked against her. Armstrong, the recorder, makes diligent notes, as she progresses through the disease, but it is clear that she will not survive.
Armstrong channels his grief into work. A gifted pilot and engineer, he is a favourite within the NASA stable. Being promoted to astronaut status in 1962, he is assigned Command Pilot for the Gemini 8 mission. The success of this mission will determine the viability of putting an American onto the Moon. But there are significant obstacles to overcome first. As the first Director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, Bob Gilruth (played by Ciaran Hinds) notes that the technology required to make this happen does not yet exist. Every method is new, untried and highly dangerous. The Armstrong family, led by Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy) are facing the prospect that Neil may not survive. The tension between Armstrong’s commitments – his family, career and country – threads throughout the film. Neil’s grief, so great he can barely bring himself to articulate it, threatens to destabilise a man on the verge of making history.
To move from Hollywood to Houston may seem like a gear change, but Chazelle retains enough of the footprint created in La La Land to make us aware that we are watching a director with a point of view.
We move from the technicolour bravado of La La Land, into a sombre, more muted palette. The pressures of the Space Race – where it is quite literally all or nothing – impose their way into the astronauts’ lives. The dominant tones – blue, brown, black – paint a world that is on the cusp of breaking through the post-war malaise, and achieving the impossible.
It is a sparsely-populated script, designed to play to Gosling’s strengths. His watchfulness is put to good use here, as Chazelle adopts a range of extreme close-ups to gauge Gosling’s reaction. Far from making it a limited performance, Gosling gives us emotion on a grand scale. Grief, terror, amazement – they are clearly marked on his face, but not a word is uttered. His interplay with Claire Foy is flawless – as Janet Armstrong, Foy brilliantly captures the frustration of being on the sidelines. The film, as well as making a point about the expendability of the astronauts, questions the role assigned to their partners. While technology flourishes, emotional intelligence is struck in a bygone age.
Chazelle looks at the fundamentals of space travel. His last film may have been a musical, but his obsession with sound is all over this project. Sound designers Mildred latrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee layer up mechanical noise – crunching, churning, spinning – to create a cacophony that threatens to overwhelm. The sense of panic as Armstrong struggles to bring a flailing Gemini 8 craft under control, is created not by dialogue, but through sound. The effect is terrifying.
While director Alfonso Cuaron played with the scale of Space in 2013’s Gravity, here we are firmly locked inside the capsule. The threat is not Space itself, but in how we get there. The advances made, just in the few years that span this film, are extraordinary. But First Man makes clear the risk the early astronauts were taking – no guarantees of arriving, and no guarantee of getting home if you do.
Chazelle is careful not to lose emotional impact, either. Beneath the science, there are waves of emotion pushing the narrative forward. Armstrong’s determination to get back to work provides a way through the grief felt for his young daughter. The grief proves seismic – it creates a new family dynamic for the Armstrongs, and for Neil himself, it drives him on to accomplish an incredible first. What this film gets across, and persuasively so, is that space travel was not inevitable. It was entirely dependent on the courage of the men and their families. The possibility of space travel may have hinged on technological development, but the endeavour is entirely human.
First Man’s flashpoint is in the element of chance of every space launch. Three astronauts are killed by an electrical fault before they even leave the ground. The danger is quick, brutal and the damage is done in the blink of an eye. The film portrays a space programme very much learning on the job.
The question of whether this is money well spent, is questioned by Chazelle. The 1960’s, beset by poverty and racial tension, could have been well-served by extra government dollars. But in the final analysis, the great speech by JFK is both question and answer. Exploration has been essential to the progress of civilisation, and it is only natural that after looking around us, we should turn our gaze up to the sky. First Man not only brings home the reality of working within the space programme, but how NASA went beyond the petty rivalry with the Soviet Union, to deliver a milestone for mankind.
As we turn our attention towards Mars, progress may come with a cost, but the prize is too great to be ignored. Curiosity is what drives us, and we would be a different people without it.