Q: Who was Neil Armstrong?
A: The first man to walk on the moon.
Q: Yes, but who was Neil Armstrong?
This is the question that informs Damien Chazelle’s intriguing and surprisingly intimate biopic of the astronaut who took ‘a giant step for mankind.’ It’s an attempt to reveal the true nature of one of the most famous men in history. It’s also a curiously thankless task because, as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is an enigma, a man so tightly buttoned-up that he is unable to reveal his true self, even to his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).
We first encounter him in 1961, when he is a test pilot for the infamous X-15 rocket-powered plane, putting himself in danger on an almost daily basis without complaint or, indeed, comment. It is the same year that his infant daughter Karen dies as a result of a brain tumour, something that affects him deeply for the rest of his life and that prompts him to enlist in the fledgling space programme – as though, in order to hide from his own grief, he needs to get as far away from his home planet as possible. Gosling is terrific in the central role, expertly conveying a taciturn hero, whose inner turmoil rages like an inferno behind a perpetually blank expression.
First Man also offers us alarming glimpses into early space missions, which seem to consist of men strapping themselves into oversized biscuit tins, crossing their fingers and blasting off into the stratosphere. It demonstrates how arduous it was, how downright dangerous. As Janet observes at one point, the team of ‘experts’ behind the space missions have no real idea of what they’re doing, they are just ‘boys building balsa wood models.’ But the all-pervading desire to beat the Russians to the moon leads them to cast caution to the wind. This is amply conveyed by the tragedy of the 1967 Apollo Mission test that results in the deaths of three astronauts. It’s brilliantly underplayed, a single thread of smoke escaping from a sealed hatch demonstrating how the awful details of such incidents are always kept securely locked away from the public gaze.
This is a nuts and bolts depiction of the events leading up to one of mankind’s most memorable achievements and it tells me more about those events than I’ve ever heard before. It’s only in the climactic sequence – the moon landing itself – where the film is finally allowed to slip into the realms of grandeur, the endless grey vistas of the lunar landscape brilliantly recreated. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that the mission is successful – but, once back on earth and with Neil in quarantine, he and his wife are still on opposite sides of a glass wall – this time literally.
So no change there.
Chazelle’s film is certainly on the long side, weighing in at two hours and twenty one minutes (ironically, exactly the same length as the last film we saw, Bad Times at the El Royale) and it might have benefited from a tighter pace, but it manages to keep me hooked throughout. And the next time somebody asks me the question, ‘Who was Neil Armstrong?’ I’ll be able to give a much more detailed reply.