In director Damien Chazelle’s new bio-pic “First Man”, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is headed to the moon, striving to be the first man to set foot on it. While back on earth, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) is holding down the home. He’s shooting for the stars, but she remains the heart of this film. Two stories are told, the public one we know and the private story of the costs to those involved.
Who knew that spaceflight could be so violent and noisy, even when everything is nominal. I guess that when you strap half a kilo-ton of high explosives to your back, it is not too much to expect that there will be a whole lot of shaking going on. The movie recounts Armstrong’s three near-death experiences, first in an X-15 skipping off the atmosphere, next in a spinning out of control Gemini capsule and finally while doing desert practice moon landings in a spidery training craft that makes the real moon landing look like a walk in the park.
In-between his work the Armstrongs raise a family and cope with death. They have three children, two sons and a daughter. They attend colleagues funerals and that of their daughter’s, who dies of cancer. Janet seems most affected by the other men’s deaths and the suffering of their surviving widows and endures a there but for the grace of God go I existence. While it is his daughter’s death that most affects Neil, causing him to wall off his feelings of grief and throw himself unsparingly into his work. She finds his stoic façade maddening.
“First Man” deserves a spot in the pantheon of contemporary spaceflight film. Joining “Apollo 13”, “Gravity”, “The Martian” and “The Right Stuff”, while excluding both “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and their more fanciful like. Even though it relates events that occurred sixty or more years in the past, it seems rooted in the present. Maybe because it tells a story that I have seen. I can still remember that sultry summer evening, huddled around a noisy B&W feed and barely hearing him say, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”