First Man: Astronauts on screen from The Right Stuff to Apollo 13 and Gravity

Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle reunite for Neil Armstrong biopic in genre where even best laid plans often go wrong

Joe Sommerlad
Saturday 13 October 2018 14:43 BST
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First Man trailer

Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle reunite after the success of La La Land (2016) for another Oscar contender, First Man, released in the UK on Friday 12 October.

In this stirring biopic of Neil Armstrong – who became the first human being to set foot on the moon when the crew of Nasa's Apollo 11 craft landed their lunar module Eagle on its surface on 20 July 1969 – Gosling is joined by Claire Foy, Corey Stoll and Jason Clarke among an accomplished cast.

While astronauts have often been depicted on screen as the heroes of many an outlandish science fiction adventure, from Planet of the Apes (1968) to Solaris (1972), Armageddon (1998), Sunshine (2007), Moon (2009), Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015), a smaller sub-genre has jettisoned the fantasy element to focus on the complex human drama of those brave men and women who risk their lives to expand the horizons of human experience.

Here are seven of the most interesting.

The Astronaut (1972)

Robert Michael Lewis’s film stars Monte Markham as Eddie Reese, a man hired by Nasa to impersonate Colonel Brice Randolph, who dies during the first manned mission to Mars because of a fault in his suit.

Fearing a publicity disaster and the potential scrapping of the programme, the US space agency manipulates media coverage of its ship's apparently triumphant return and has Reese surgically altered to ensure he resembles Randolph, the situation further complicated when he is expected to go home and carry on living as the dead man in the company of the latter’s suspicious wife.

Capricorn One (1977)

Released in the aftermath of Watergate, Capricorn One is even more paranoid about the state and its capacity for duplicity and is very much in the bitter spirit of its moment, much like The Conversation (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976).

Directed by Peter Hyams, the film takes the well-known conspiracy theory that the US government faked the moon landings as its premise, casting James Brolin, Sam Waterson and OJ Simpson as the astronauts who reluctantly become embroiled in the cover-up.

Elliot Gould does superb work as cynical journalist Robert Caulfield, pulling on all the right threads.

Beyond the Stars (1989)

Stirring a Spielbergian sense of wonder into the Seventies anxiety of its forerunners, David Saperstein’s film stars Christian Slater as idealistic trainee astronaut Eric Michaels, who befriends Paul Andrews (Martin Sheen), the unlucky 13th man on the moon.

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Andrews is shunned by Nasa and his fellow Apollo veterans and harbours a dark secret but Eric refuses to see the truth.

Marooned (1969)

A nightmarish thriller about three American astronauts (Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna and James Franciscus) trapped in orbit and running out of oxygen due to engine failure, John Sturges’s film appeared just four months after Apollo 11 and capitalised on the public excitement.

A clear forerunner of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, it also pre-empts Apollo 13, Interstellar and The Martian in switching focus back-and-forth between Nasa Mission Control, overseen by Gregory Peck, desperately trying to wring out a solution, and the plight of the men all alone in the darkness.

James Franciscus, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna in Marooned
James Franciscus, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna in Marooned (Snap/Rex/Shutterstock)

The hope that the Soviets, America’s nemesis on Earth, can put terrestrial concerns behind them and come to the rescue, bespeaks a touching optimism about the possibility of a swift end to the Cold War that was not forthcoming.

Rescue missions are a recurrent theme in the genre – especially from Mars, commonly regarded as the next frontier – with Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000), Maria Lidon’s independent film Stranded (2001) and The Martian all concerning themselves with the scramble to retrieve a crew cast adrift on the rocks of the Red Planet.

The Right Stuff (1983)

Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name by writer-director Philip Kaufman, The Right Stuff largely stays below the cloud line, keepings its focus on the Navy, Marine and Air Force test pilots flying out of California’s Edwards Air Force Base who just might have the proper mix of technical ability and fearless abandon to make for ideal astronauts.

Sam Shephard perhaps has the plum role as Chuck Yeager, who beat the speed of sound in his X-1 in 1947 but Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid and Lance Henriksen are among the other members of the posturing Mercury Seven enjoying their elite status as they take to the skies with the Space Race hotting up.

Gravity (2013)

Mexican director Cuaron received huge acclaim for the visual effects on show in this gripping two-hander starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as co-pilots forced to fight for their lives when debris damages their shuttle en route to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity
Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (Warner Bros)

Desperate to reach the International Space Station, the duo are forced to exhaust every option to save their lives and the filmmaker takes a lesson from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in killing off one of his stars to shocking effect before the other crash lands to terra firm in a heart-stopping freefall.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see it on an IMAX screen, you’ll know the effect is overwhelming.

Apollo 13 (1995)

“Houston, we have a problem...”

Perhaps director Ron Howard’s greatest strength in Apollo 13 is the production's extraordinary attention to detail, the filmmaker at pains to make his recreation of the aborted 1970 lunar mission as authentic as possible.

Based on the first-hand account of the disaster Lost Moon by Commander Jim Lovell (played on screen by Tom Hanks), the picture again dramatises the crew’s bid for survival when technical failings place them in danger but does not neglect the emotional strain on those looking up from earth at their loved ones in peril or the desperate frustration of Lovell as he is forced to accept his dream of following in Armstrong’s footsteps is destined to go unrealised.

Howard’s ace cast is rounded out by such reliable talent as Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris (again) and the work is a superb achievement overall.

But, on this evidence, First Man promises to be that rarest of things: a journey into the unknown in which matters go according to plan.

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