I knew who Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were almost as soon as I could read, and while, before the age of six, I knew the names of the twelve men who walked on the moon off by heart, I couldn’t even recall who the first of the twelve disciples were, let alone the rest of them. Which, at the time, was a considerable bone of contention between my parents and the staff of the Church of England Primary school that I was forced to attend. I was, and still am, fascinated by the Gemini and Apollo space programmes, and while the rest of my childhood peers worshipped Abba, I looked to the stars and wondered what it was like to soar through space. My heroes didn’t dance on Top of the Pops, they broke the sound barrier, flew higher, faster and further than anyone had dared believe possible. My heroes rode rockets. And Neil Armstrong, the quiet man of NASA, commander of Apollo 11 and the biographical subject of First Man, was the greatest of all of my idols.
Opening with the tragic death of Armstrong’s infant daughter Karen, First Man charts Armstrong’s career as an active astronaut, from his initial application to, and recruitment by, NASA through to the immediate aftermath of his return from the lunar surface. It’s an intensely personal film, one that postulates that Armstrong’s reticence was a direct response to, and his way of dealing with, the loss of friends, most notably Ed White, and the continuing effect that the death of his daughter had on his life and that of his family. Portraying Armstrong as a reserved, driven man who found it difficult to interact on a personal level and focused on work instead of spending time with those closest to him, Damien Chazelle’s film is a beautifully imagined study of a man who always seemed to be slightly out of step with the world and who finally found comfort and a sense of acceptance in the solitude and quiet of the Sea of Tranquillity. Ryan Gosling is hugely impressive as Armstrong, capturing the contemplative essence of a man forged by courage, whose sometimes fraught and difficult relationship with his first wife Janet, played by the equally impressive Claire Foy, was what really enabled him, on both a personal and professional level, to reach further than he ever dreamed possible. While it plays a little loosely with the truth and doesn’t always let facts get in the way of telling a good story, First Man is historically accurate enough to satisfy even the most ardent of NASA historians. Compelling, interesting and wonderfully entertaining, it’s the warts and all story of one of humanities greatest achievements and the man, and men, whose belief in the future allowed them to travel beyond the confines of the planet they called home. Magnificent… Tim Cundle