First Man - It's not a film about space
Stephen Spielberg's 1975 film "Jaws" was not about a shark. Similarly, First Man is not about America's journey to put a man on the moon. Yes, these things happen but the film is more an exploration of grief, in particular Neil Armstrong's struggle to deal with the death of his young daughter. It also looks at the morality and the cost in human terms of the space programme.
Director Damien Chazelle, who previously brought us La La Land, Whiplash and 10 Cloverfield Lane tackles the right stuff and explores the story of Neil Armstrong and the families of the Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Ryan Gosling, in a sometimes muted performance, plays Armstrong and an excellent Claire Foy, his wife Janet. Indeed this film is as much about Janet Armstrong as it is her famous husband.
Early on in the film, the couple lose their youngest daughter. They think a change and a fresh start would be good so Neil signs up for the Astronaut programme. They move in with an become a part of the NASA astronaut community. We see them celebrate and commiserate together. We see them deal with the deaths of their colleagues at various points.
The film does offer some redemption for Armstrong in an act that I'm sure has been dramatised. Nonetheless it is powerful and unexpected when it happens. Armstrong remains emotionally unavailable for most of the film. Indeed before he leaves for his historical Apollo XI flight, his wife Janet has to practically beg him to talk to his children about the mission and the fact he might not be coming home. The resulting "meeting" around the kitchen table is emotionally dead apart from Janet's frustration with her husband. His eldest son's hand shake at the end is heartbreaking.
Chazelle also does a magnificent job of showing how fragile the spaceships were. Having visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum recently in Washington, I was fortunate to view, up close, some of the original Apollo craft. The nuts and bolts, the rivets and how the craft were put together underlines the bravery of these men. The film does an excellent job of putting you in the capsule and letting you experience the frightening noise and vibration. At one point someone asks if anyone has a Swiss Army knife so they can fix something. It's extraordinary.
As an exploration of humanity, Chazelle has crafted a wonderful piece of cinema against the backdrop of putting the first man on the moon. It is nothing short of a miracle that they pulled it off. Without the skill of people like Armstrong, it might not have happened.