First Man, Venice Film Festival, review: Ryan Gosling shines in this remarkably told Neil Armstrong biopic

The movie serves as an apt reminder of much that has been forgotten

David Lister
Thursday 06 September 2018 15:05
Comments
First Man- trailer

Damien Chazelle, 138 mins, starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler

Asked to name a great all American hero, many of us might plump for Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

What the opening film of the Venice Film Festival shows poignantly is that he did not fit that bill at all. Armstrong was a quiet, almost monosyllabic man unable to engage properly with family or friends and either incapable of showing feelings, or perhaps just finding them a distraction from the business in hand.

Ryan Gosling is not exactly a stranger to playing introverted characters. But this was a special challenge: to play such a person while inspiring the audience to view him as still worthy of a form of adulation.

Gosling manages it superbly. Reunited with La La Land director Damien Chazelle, he guides us through eight years of space flights, mishaps and tragedies leading up to the 1969 landing. The tension is constant and told not through the usual paraphernalia of space movies, but often through Gosling’s face. It is almost expressionless. Almost. The barest sign of a tremor around his mouth, or a sign of hope or fear in his piercing blue eyes convey a great deal.

As his wife Jan, Claire Foy is an exquisite study in 1960s American housewife acceptance. Acceptance of her husband’s refusal to communicate with her or their children properly, especially after the death of their young daughter.

She loses her sangfroid only twice, once when she confronts NASA engineers who have put her husband in danger. “We are in control”, they assure her. “You’re not in control at all,” she screams at them. “You’re a bunch of boys playing with balsa wood models.”

The other time is before the Moon trip when she demands of Gosling that he tell their two young sons where he is going and says goodbye. It is a telling scene. Gosling is emotionless and curt, a look of incomprehension from the all-too-focused astronaut at the anguish of his boy who realises the Moon landing means his dad will miss his swim meet.

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in Damien Chazelle’s 'captivating' First Man

The film leans on James Hansen’s meticulously researched book. But screenwriter Josh Singer and the cast and creatives added to it by meeting Armstrong’s family and involving them. Claire Foy even asked his now grown-up sons whether it was mum or dad who spent bath time with them.

The movie serves as an apt reminder of much that has been forgotten: how pivotal the space race rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was to the Cold War; how there was strong opposition to it in America, not least from the poor. At one point a Sixties black activist recites a poem: “Whitey’s on the Moon.”

Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

Perhaps, most of all, it is a reminder of the astronauts who were lost in the years of preparation for the venture. Armstrong wouldn’t have gone at all if colleagues who were friends and neighbours hadn’t been killed.

All this is set to a backdrop of conventional American suburbia, with its cookie-swapping customs and assorted repressions. It is Gosling’s great achievement that he can convey so much while speaking so relatively little. Indeed, Armstrong's famous line – “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” – is one of his longer speeches.

All credit to Chazelle, too. In a film that has the Moon landing and multiple rocket launches, he resists the obvious temptation to rely on technical wizardry. This is a human story, remarkably well told.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in