In the aftermath of World War II, nations lay in ruins as the Eastern Communist Regime stood tall facing the United States in the West. Even though we had stared annihilation in the face, the contention was far from over, at least for the two standing giants. Cold war sparked an unprecedented race for absolute political dominance, and with it came the inevitable penchant for technological supremacy that has not abated even all these years after the fall of the USSR. Space became the next great frontier. Whoever broke through that impossible barrier would be the pioneer who would usher in the next great evolution in the human race, and America was falling behind. The aggressive Soviet Space Program made rapid strides in building rockets that had the capability of launching satellites that could orbit the Earth. When the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1 successfully achieved orbit, economist Bernard Baruch quoted in an open letter – “While we devote our industrial and technological power to producing new model automobiles and more gadgets, the Soviet Union is conquering space. … It is Russia, not the United States, who has had the imagination to hitch its wagon to the stars and the skill to reach for the moon and all but grasp it. America is worried. It should be..” By 1961, when the American Space Program was barely a toddler, Russia had successfully sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit aboard Vostok 1.
It was time for America’s redemption. There was only one window of opportunity. If they ever wanted to call themselves a veritable super-power, they would have to beat Russia in the race to the next great challenge – the Moon. Damien Chazelle’s First Man begins in 1962 in the backdrop of a strenuous time when NASA was under immense pressure to prove themselves as an organization worthy of taxpayers’ billions of dollars. Seven years later, as we all know, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin made history by setting foot upon our nearest celestial neighbour 384,400 km away from Earth. As romantic and inspiring it may sound right now, back in 1962 Armstrong’s world had collapsed unto itself. His one-year old daughter Karen had been diagnosed with a malignant tumor in 1961, and had been fighting a losing battle ever since. Just within a year, the affliction had consumed her to such a point that she could barely walk or talk. Karen passed away in January of 1962 in a bout of pneumonia. For a father who had lost his daughter, the Space race hardly mattered.
Unlike any other space-film where the viewer is plunged into the rigorous training that astronauts have to go through before the final-frontier adventure, the first act, here, is a montage of Armstrong spending time with his children, especially with his beloved daughter.
Unlike any other space-film where the viewer is plunged into the rigorous training that astronauts have to go through before the final-frontier adventure, the first act, here, is a montage of Armstrong spending time with his children, especially with his beloved daughter. Chazelle captures these poignant moments through uncharacteristic close-up shots where the subject’s face fills up the whole screen, so much so that you notice every line, every wrinkle, every single quiver of the eye, and the contours of the mouth. This style of filming makes you feel far closer to the actor as there is nothing else in the background to distract you from. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong is that of a man who is not quick to share his emotions. He smiles from time to time like a shy schoolboy who is happy in that moment. Maybe he knows somewhere inside that the present was all he had with his child. In fact, the first time we see him breaking away from character is right after Karen’s funeral when he sobs uncontrollably.
While Armstrong and his first wife, Janet Shearon, are grieving, NASA tests its lunar modules to prepare for the longest, most precarious journey that man had ever attempted. The physics of the whole sojourn would need to be extremely precise and the pioneers would need guts of steel to be able to cope with the immense physical and mental toll that it would take on them. Bear in mind that these were still the early days for space exploration and many of the safety precautions that exist today, were not present then. This made an astronaut’s life all the more perilous, and the path to the moon was paved with lives. In 1965, as Armstrong awaits news of the selection into the Gemini 8 crew, his peers and close friends, Elliot See and Charles Bassett are killed in a T-38 crash. Although he is devastated by their deaths, Armstrong agrees to take up the Gemini-8 mission with David Scott as co-pilot. Despite a near disaster situation, Gemini-8 is a success thanks to Armstrong’s presence of mind. This was just the beginning. In the next few years, there would be several accidents – one in which the entire Apollo 1 crew is eviscerated in a plug-outs test, and another one in which Armstrong barely escapes death himself.
Chazelle depicts an astronaut’s life not from a third-person’s perspective but from that of a second person who is looking directly at the man at the wheel. As focus is shifted from the technical side of things, all that is left is the pure terror on the passenger’s face as he hears the groans and creaks of the metal-box that he is trapped in, hurtling towards the ground at thousands of miles per hour., as we see in the opening sequence. There is no adventure in that moment, just a singular grasp on that moment and an uncomfortable awareness of living. Gosling’s melancholy eyes play well in these situations when death stared him in the face. He had already died once and this time he may be closer to his daughter. Claire Foy, as Armstrong’s wife, brings out yet another aspect of an astronaut’s life – that of a wife who knows the hazards of her husband’s work but cannot stop him from taking that historic leap. One of my favourite scenes is when, right before the Apollo 11 launch, she admonishes Armstrong and asks him to talk to his boys. She would not be the one who would be telling them what would happen if their father died. That was his responsibility as a father. Short sprinklings of scenes like this, make First Man a very real account of the story that we have probably heard a thousand times and yet it feels different. Maybe the name First man is not a reference to Armstrong being the first man to the moon but to the fact that he was first a man, a father and then an astronaut.
First Man may feel different from anything that Chazelle has ever directed but it is essentially the same story. Just like Whiplash and La La Land, the film is about the trepidations of life, and how despite that, the people walk the last mile fueled by a sense of responsibility to themselves. One may even say that Armstrong got lucky. But for those accidents, he would never have made it to the Apollo 11 crew. That may even be true to an extent, but nothing changes the fact that, as the Mission Lead, Armstrong got his crew to the moon safely and back. Something that had never been attempted. Something that required immense focus, especially from a man who had lost so much. Armstrong never sought to inspire anyone, nor did he ask for fame. He was just strong for his family and himself, a good husband and a good father. And, perhaps, that is what made all the difference.