The redoubtable Ryan Gosling, he of the odd name but outstanding controlled acting, is back in First Man….. in a biopic about the 10 years in the 1960s life of the first person to walk on the moon (he is the first of the most elite club in history; there have been 12 people to walk on the Moon, all of them American, as it happens, and all from the third (Apollo) of three 1960s rocketry ‘programs’ initiated by the US Government, in an attempt to beat the burgeoning Soviet Empire’s precieved ‘threat’ (to the USA), in this sphere. The subtext of this race to land a man on the moon was really weaponry; the perception was, If ‘we’ can do this, well, do not think of invading us. Yes, such was the mood of paranoia of the 1960s, but just 15 years on from the end of World War 2, there was a certain weight, to such fears, on ‘both’ sides (Communists versus ‘the West’).
‘First Man’ Does not touch on such politics; it, instead, goes straight to the heart of home life, and the fears indeed of the wives of these pioneering American Astronauts. Ryan Gosling, as the choice to play Neil Armstrong, is an inspired bit of casting. His ruminative, careful personality comes through Gosling’s subtle portrayal of a man little given to ostentatious displays of overt passion; he is a man of technical science, and is therefore the epitome of real cool. he needs to be; test pilots cannot succeed as excitable people.
The film takes us through the mid-1960s in clever close-ups; the Swedish D.o.P., Linus Sandgren, cleverly uses cameras that visually ‘fizzle’ with a certain imitation of the ways super8mm and super16mm film ‘looked’, in the 1960s; think “Woodstock 1969” footage. Director Damien Chazelle, back working with Gosling after this union’s artistic triumph with ‘LaLa Land’, invokes the doubt and claustrophobia of the space missions, by homing in with close-ups and hand-held jerky camera style; he even allows his actors to mumble, so that one has to strain to hear and understand what the astronauts are saying when they are Not Astronauts: when they are at home, cooking dinner, having a beer, even speaking to their wives, worrying about the missions ahead of them.
By January 1967, everything had been going well for the roster of 49 Apollo astronauts; but that very month, three of them died tragically in a simple lock-in test of the Apollo 1 rocket, while the rocket sat on the launch pad. A flash-fire swept through the compact cabin they were shut into, and no-one could get to them in time. It shocked everyone to the core; and the film does not shy away from showing this harrowing day. It would be 2 and a half years later, in July 1969, that an Apollo rocket was deemed good and ready to carry a new set of three astronauts, to the moon, sure that that would be able to return from it, too.
Director Chazelle, still only thirty-three, has wrought one of the finest biopics in cinema history, with First Man; and his side-casting of Claire Foy (as wife Janet Armstrong) and Corey Stoll as Edwin Aldrin, the second man to walk the moon that day in July 1969, are stellar moments in casting. 20 July 2019 next year will be the 50th anniversary of these heady days, which will be rightly celebrated next year as truly momentous.