Hyderabad: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Even Neil Alden Armstrong would not have known that he would be uttering these words. First Man – the story of the first man on moon and a little about the other two guys Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) – the second man to walk on the moon and Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) Gemini astronaut and backup commander on Apollo 11’s mission. Relying more on in-camera effects than computer-generated imagery, the technically dazzling film provides sharp insights into the making of a pioneering hero who is driven more by his journeyman ethics than by an unblemished, over-hyped spirit of idealism.
“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul … we’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream” – this is what he says in one of his interviews giving us a small insight into the reclusive hero’s life. Even after finishing the movie, you will not feel like you know the first man on the moon – which may prevent some viewers from connecting with the story – but you understand him.
Director Damien Chazelle wastes no time in pitchforking us right into the cramped, claustrophobic cockpit of the X-15, a hypersonic plane designed to soar to altitudes higher than any aircraft in the early 1960s. Test pilot – a very reserved and a man of few words Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is at the controls. Who will not be if their daughter dies at the age of two? The plane shakes and rattles. But the unflappable engineer-turned-astronaut keeps his wits about him and survives a near-fatal crash on the edge of Edwards Air Force Base. The first question on his mind after the close shave is: “Am I grounded?”
An outer space adventure saga on the lines of Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian, First Man too is a family drama about a man too focused on his ambition to devote sufficient attention to his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy) and two sons. It sure is surprising that there’s never been a feature-length cinematic portrayal of Armstrong’s life before. Then again, it’s hard to make great drama about great success, and the Apollo 11 mission was an unqualified one. Whether they’re biopics like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff or fictional films like Gravity and The Martian, space movies often thrive on anxiety and failure.
Chazelle is well aware that the audience know most of the facts. Yet he has crafted a film that generates incredible tension from the lead-up to that triumphant moment. The Kubrickian hallmark of space movies—majestic wide shots—is ignored (at least right until the film’s final sequence). From minute one, Chazelle wants things to feel tenuous, claustrophobic and stressful; the Apollo program, after all, was no sure bet.
First Man is as much about the glory as it is of grief and the guts to overcome the fear and take that small step.