Two years ago, Damien Chazelle’s movie La La Land opened the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Last night, the same honour was given to his new picture First Man, which tells the story of how Neil Armstrong, played by Chazelle’s favourite leading man Ryan Gosling, came to be the first astronaut to set foot on the moon.
For a storyteller, even one as clever as Chazelle, it can be a challenge when the audience knows how the drama ends. After all, few quotations have a greater claim to immortality than ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’.
Yet First Man, based on an acclaimed 2005 biography, still unfolds as a captivating and suspenseful thriller, which is given a powerful whoosh of added poignancy by the story of Armstrong’s family life.
Claire Foy, so wonderful as the Queen in the Netflix series The Crown, is no less fine in the role of consort here in First Man (pictured at the Venice Film Festival)
Early in his career, he and his wife Janet (superbly played by Claire Foy) lost a two-year-old daughter, Karen, to a brain tumour.
In what is essentially an account of a remarkable, epoch-making triumph, death looms terribly large. Not just that of Karen, but also of several of Armstrong’s fellow pilots and astronauts.
Had three of them not perished in a fire on a flight simulator in 1967, he probably wouldn’t have been the first man on the moon. Some families paid a catastrophic price for victory in the so-called space race against the Soviet Union.
Chazelle and his screenwriter Josh Singer do not gloss over these tragedies. On the contrary, they use them to inform the characters of both Armstrong and his spiky, insensitive colleague Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll).
First Man, tells the story of how Neil Armstrong, played by Damien Chazelle’s favourite leading man Ryan Gosling, came to be the first astronaut to set foot on the moon
The former mourns his friends deeply but can rationalise their deaths with a simple observation: ‘We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.’
He emerges as an introvert, his emotions as tightly bottled as his oxygen supply.
There is a brilliant scene, on the eve of the Apollo 11 expedition, in which Janet forces him to sit down with his two young sons, to tell them he might not come home.
But this extraordinarily brave and resourceful man shirks the challenge. It’s not rocket science, which is precisely the problem. He addresses his boys as he would a press conference.
For a storyteller, even one as clever as Chazelle, it can be a challenge when the audience knows how the drama ends
By then, the film has followed a careful chronological path through the Sixties. It sketches the political backdrop, with some in Congress railing at the cost of building rockets, and civil rights activists complaining about muddled priorities, but its main focus is on the major steps in Armstrong’s Nasa career.
He has some narrow escapes of his own and nobody sums up the experimental, at times almost rudimentary nature of the US space programme more starkly than his wife Janet. ‘You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,’ she rages at Armstrong’s boss, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler).
Foy, so wonderful as the Queen in the Netflix series The Crown, is no less fine in the role of consort here. It is very much a supporting part, but still, I’ll wager, the stuff of award nominations.
Besides, she gets to share many of the film’s best moments, as when she tells her son that his dad is going to the moon. ‘OK,’ he replies. ‘Can I go outside?’
Chazelle makes much of the contrast between terrestrial domesticity and Armstrong’s adventures in space, cutting repeatedly between the two, until he gets to the film’s crowning moment, the July 1969 moon landing itself.
It is painstakingly reconstructed, beautifully and movingly imagining what really went on behind the grainy TV footage we all know so well.
It’s a stunning end to a stunning film, one which will surely propel its director, still only 33 but already with La La Land and the awards-festooned Whiplash to his name, into the Hollywood stratosphere.
First Man opens in the UK on October 12.