It seems surprising that until now no one has really tried to make a film about Neil Armstrong. The first man on the Moon will be rightly remembered by history as a hero. The problem is, as First Man demonstrates, being a hero doesn’t necessarily make you interesting.
Unfortunately, unlike fictional astronauts, who can have whatever personality the writers wish to imbue, by definition, real life astronauts have too much of their shit together to be good characters. They’re literally selected on the basis of their ability to react calmly and rationally even in the most dangerous of situations.
This means that for all of the pensive looks and eyebrow-scrunching Gosling does in pursuit of his Oscar, it is never entirely clear whether his Armstrong is happy or not to be going to the Moon.
So in the end, Armstrong just comes across as a nice man who is quietly focused and doesn’t invite attention. Historically accurate? Presumably… but it doesn’t make for particularly compelling viewing.
To be fair, the film does attempt to give Armstrong an emotional journey: it starts the film with the loss of his infant daughter. As we see Armstrong train, we are shown how the spectre of death loomed large around his family and friends. Presumably the idea was to show the toll that Armstrong’s space adventures were having on his wife Janet (Claire Foy), but it doesn’t quite work... as, well, it is blindingly obvious how dangerous going into space is.
What compounds this is that by some distance, though he only gets some very limited screen time, the most compelling character is Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin. Whenever he is on screen, all you can think about is how much more interesting First Man would be if it was told from the Second Man’s perspective.
Think about it: Aldrin wasn’t afraid to crack a joke, or say something controversial. He’d play up for the cameras – and a dramatisation could have focused on his feelings about not being first, but being second, with all of the complex mixture of jealousy and pride that might have entailed.
However, Armstrong’s lack personality shouldn’t necessarily be fatal to the film, as there is evidence that real (or realistic) astronauts can still be engaging. In 1995’s Apollo 13, part of the joy is just watching extremely competent people achieve incredibly difficult things. There’s an immense satisfaction in watching someone very clever solve a complex puzzle, and explaining to you how they did it.
And First Man does contain scenes that scratch this itch: The scenes where Armstrong has to attempt the world’s first in-orbit docking procedure, and the descent to the surface of the Moon are absolutely gripping… even though in the back of your mind, you know that everything must eventually turn out okay.
The only frustration is when in the middle of a tense moment, the film will cut back to Armstrong’s boring wife and her intensely irritating son in an attempt to make their stories matter too.
But don’t let my negativity fool you. I still think that First Man is a good film. And on every other metric, the film tends to succeed and is very much worth seeing.
The sets, costumes and technology give the film a real sense of its period and immerse you into the setting. Seeing the space programme vividly brought to life on screen really makes you appreciate the scale of what was achieved with just a few tin cans and some clever nerds. The sound design is also particularly great: The film makers knew exactly when to use music or silence to make a scene work.
There’s also plenty in there that enhances the experience for anyone who knows a little bit about the space programme: At one point we see Jim Lovell in Mission Control, with no wink to the camera about what would later happen to him. And as soon as Gus Grissom tells Armstrong that he’s been selected for the first Apollo mission… well… you know what is going to happen next.
So if you’re interested in space stuff, you’ll definitely enjoy First Man. Let’s just hope they do Second Man next.
First Man hits cinemas on October 12th.