For such an historic and iconic theme as the Apollo 11 moon landing any director is taking a big leap..
Damien Chazelle (director La La Land and Whiplash) must have been aware of the cultural and historical expectations for a feature film on Neil Armstrong.
Before the space race and the cold war of mid 20th century, indeed since the dawn of civilization, these expectations were building.
Instead, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer chose to focus on the astronaut’s personal life rather than a collective view. But could they have done both? Maybe this would amount to compromise. But Chazelle is no stranger to difficult themes. Whiplash is a dazzling display of filmic art and he somehow manages to succeed – a story based on a struggling jazz drummer is ambiguous enough.
Claire Foy’s powerful portrayal of Janet Shearon (Armstrong’s partner) reveals an interpersonal relationship that extends beyond her family into the very heart of NASA itself – showing up the protocol sequence that is really a way of hiding potential fatalities. Shearon’s line ‘you’re a bunch of boys, you don’t have anything under control’ sums up her awful dilemma and the mission’s true fragility.
Amstrong’s space career coincides with the tragic death of their daughter from a brain tumour. The great success of the film is this juxtaposition and an attempt at personal reconciliation. Ryan Gosling’s ability to convey this elevates him as an actor.
In 1969 the televised landing has an estimated audience of 600 million giving the world a collective sigh of relief as Armstrong is brought into their hearts and minds.
This is the backdrop for the introspective Armstrong with his steely resolve to pull off the feat. Even though the mission is a national effort it takes the crack pilot to manually override the computer with only seconds of fuel to achieve success.
The final Apollo scene, including the landing sequence is fabulous and lives up to expectation with all the shaking and vibration within the crammed interior of vintage rocketry hardware. Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack gives it a certain science fiction, spaced-out feel that is almost euphoric.
As the First Man gently releases his daughter’s bracelet into the shadowy depths of a lunar crater, and with teary eyes, we learn the true meaning of the journey.
Director is Damien Chazelle
Screenplay by Josh Singer
Ryan Gosling is Armstrong
Claire Foy is Janet Shearon
Music by Justin Hurwitz