‘Have them tell the Soviets that they can go screw!’ roars one particularly loud-mouthed member of NASA’s mission control during the 1966 Gemini 8 mission. It’s one of the few moments in First Man where the ‘space race’ and wider United States vs Soviet rivalry boils over beyond subtle nods and background noise, firmly taking centre stage. Another such moment comes when it is revealed that the Soviets beat the Americans in performing the first ever space walk, having previously also been the first to launch a satellite, and the first to put a man into orbit.
Spoiler: with the moon assigned the finishing line, the US would eventually emerge victorious.
The man who it fell to to symbolise the completion of this goal was Neil Armstrong, test pilot, Korean War veteran and married father-of-two from Ohio. As the title suggests, this is a film focusing heavily on him specifically, with the Soviets and wider geopolitical implications largely kept at arms length, mere ripples in the Armstrong narrative. It’s about overcoming personal loss (the death of his daughter Karen, the loss of his friend Ed White during the Apollo 1 disaster) through one of America’s – if not humanity’s – greatest achievements. The space race itself is shoved into the background.
Armstrong is shown to be flawed. His pride prevents him from listening to his wife, his fears (and/or nerves) prevent him opening up to his children about the substantial risks that he will never return home. In this way, the great American hero – paraded in front of the world by the whole country as evidence of their success – becomes an ordinary guy, a normal, everyday husband and father. Gosling plays him as extremely quiet, monosyllabic at times, and robotically professional (especially compared to the outspoken and quirky Buzz Aldrin), to the extent that you wonder if Gosling’s Armstrong actually wants to get to the moon at all. It’s a surprisingly subdued performance for what is undoubtedly one of his biggest career roles.
The relentless focus on depicting everything from Armstrong’s perspective is emphasised by the claustrophobic portrayal of actual space sequences. On the whole, we don’t get to see outside shots of spacecraft, the vast majority of filming shows only what Armstrong and the crew would have experienced at the time. The camera shudders violently, the screen blurs, horribly piercing mechanical sounds ring around the cockpit. The sense of isolation and distance from home is profound, even if the question about whether he survives to tell the tale fails to ignite much tension.
The furore around the film so far has focused on the ultimate symbolism of the successful Apollo 11 mission: the planting of the American flag in the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, or in the film’s case, the lack of it. While the planting is not shown with any ceremony, the flag is clearly depicted next to the Eagle launch craft, yet the controversy around this least-scandalous of all scandals shows how central the US-Soviet rivalry truly was in propelling the Apollo program forwards, no matter the human or economic costs.
The non-planting is one of many ways Americanism has seemingly been quietly removed from the centre of the Apollo 11 story, instead subtly inserted throughout. The stars-and-stripes are visible on many other occasions: John F Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech is played on television, the US is praised by people around the world. It’s very much an American triumph, with the rest of the world watching on. There are only fleeting mentions of the mounting opposition to the money being ploughed into NASA’s Gemini/Apollo missions, such as the playing of Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem Whitey on the Moon (‘I can't pay no doctor bill / but Whitey’s on the moon’).
For the most part, First Man paints a deliberately rose-tinted picture of 1960’s America, with the sun always shining, the American Dream in full swing. Armstrong plays with his kids in the backyard pool wearing a red baseball cap that today screams MAGA. Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong as the patient, supportive housewife to a tee, suffering at home while he gets propelled into space, only daring to truly speak her mind when fears about Armstrong being in danger become overwhelming (‘You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood!’ she shouts at NASA staff, when demanding to be told if Armstrong will return safely).
Crucially, much of the movie is filmed with a handheld-style camera that only enhances the feeling of glimpsing back in time, as though we’re trawling through old home videos and archive footage of real events unfolding in the build-up to the iconic events of July 1969. The decision to cut so much of the wider Apollo 11 story from the film in favour of including primarily that which was experienced by (or personally relevant to) Armstrong himself is an interesting one, and will likely confuse many cinema-goers. But this choice instead allows us to at least try to understand the true character behind the man chosen to take that one small step and that giant leap for mankind.
First Man is on general release in the UK from 12 October
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!