On July 20 1969 (when TV’s were very much a top end luxury item) over 530 million people worldwide watched the moon landing live. Now if that doesn’t have blockbuster written all over it I don’t know what does. I mean, we’re coming up on 50 years now since this happened!
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Who made it?
First Man is based on James Hansen’s biography “First Man: A life of Neil A Armstrong”, adapted for the screen by Josh Singer who won an Oscar for Spotlight and Directed by Damien Chazelle who won best director Oscar for La la Land. Needless to say the story is in safe hands.
What’s it about?
While there were many people involved in the moon landing First Man—as the title suggests focuses—on one, Neil Armstrong.
The film opens with Armstrong’s test flight of the X-15 hypersonic space plane that took him to over 207,000 feet above the earth to the fringe of the Earth’s atmosphere where he started to balloon into space. This is one of many brushes with death he faced throughout his career and it could not have been captured more perfectly in this opening scene. From here we go on to see key milestones from the next decade of Armstrong’s life, leading up to the Apollo 11 mission and Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot on the moon.
Test flights and space travel aside, the movie focuses on the man and his family inviting you to the inner sanctum. It alludes to the obsessive nature of Armstrong very early on, professionally and personally, with him making every effort to seek out help and treatment for his baby daughter Karen who succumbed to complications from a brain tumour when she was three. After that personal tragedy, he thrust himself into his work, presumably to cope with the loss and was well on his way to NASA and the Apollo Program.
One of the challenges they must have faced trying to present a biopic on Armstrong is the fact that he was such a stoic man. How do you make a drama film about a resilient man with nerves of steel? He never really came across as a dramatic guy.
Who’s in it?
First, you assemble an amazing cast. Ryan Gosling is perfect as Armstrong, his acting style suits the character down to the ground. The supporting cast are also superb. Jason Clarke as Ed White, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin to name a few. However, the standout performer and the actor that binds this incredible story together is Claire Foy who play Neil’s wife Janet, she is the voice of reason among these men with their obsession to win the space race at all costs. She is the reality check and while Gosling takes you on Armstrong’s journey, Claire Foy is the one who makes you feel it.
The second thing you do is pay incredible attention to detail. The amount of time and effort they have put in to recreating not only 1960’s America but also the flight sequences, press conference and shots of the moon landing are spectacular. I found myself coming home and pouring over documentaries about the moon landings and Armstrong and the people who made this movie seemed to get every minute detail (event the look of his backyard swimming was pool spot on!). Also, the portrayal of flight and space travel is more accurate than anything I have ever seen, from the sound design to the detail on the interiors right down to every last rivet and screw on the spacecraft. This movie is like the astronaut’s version of Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan.
You know how the Mark Twain saying goes, Truth is stranger than fiction. Because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t”.
I think that applies to Neil Armstrong because in his quest for truth he seems to have never been bound by what is possible, he sought to do the impossible. Even now 50 years on, the man’s achievements are remarkable, and I am so glad I took the time to see First Man because it really makes you reflect on that.
His story, that of the test pilots that went before him, the astronauts that went after and everyone that went with him is truly inspiring and it makes me wish we could go back to strapping people to rockets and sending them into space instead of using them as weapons against each other.
There was only one thing that brought out the cynic in me during a really symbolic moment at the end of the film. If it really happened it’s beautiful but if it comes to pass that they have embellished this tiny detail for the sake of drama, it ever so slightly undermines all of the hard work they went to make the movie authentic.
Either way, First Man is a must see.