With the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings approaching, it seems inevitable that Hollywood would pay tribute to one of the most ambitious journeys ever taken by humanity.
That first step on the lunar surface was the culmination of many different tangled stories, from the Cold War tensions between the US and USSR to Kennedy’s rousing “we choose to go the Moon” address, the catastrophic fire that claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 astronauts and the ambitions of the engineers and pilots who would eventually become heroes to millions across the world.
First Man is not so much the story of Apollo 11 as it is the story of Neil Armstrong, played by Gosling, and his wife Janet, played by Claire Foy.
The story begins with the loss of their young daughter and follows the couple through the trials and tribulations that life as an astronaut and an astronaut’s spouse inevitably bring.
We go behind the scenes to find out how Armstrong became involved in the space programme, how NASA’s experts reacted to each twist and turn in the Apollo story, and ultimately the strain it put on the Armstrongs, as tragedies and the loss of life make Janet begin to imagine a future in which she has to raise her two sons as a single mother.
The release of First Man coincides with the 50th anniversary of Apollo, but also with a renewed interest in spaceflight, as attention turns to the prospect of landing on Mars and perhaps even returning to the Moon. This is one of the reasons why First Man made our list of the best space movies of all time.
As the number of moonwalkers has dwindled over the decades since the last mission, Apollo 17, many of those involved in the programme continue to ask why we haven’t gone back to the lunar surface, or tried to push human spaceflight even further.
Perhaps First Man’s resonance goes beyond a nostalgic look at a pivotal point in human history, and is instead a call to action, emphasising what humanity can achieve when we put our minds to it.
Find out what the BBC Sky at Night Magazine team thought of First Man:
Chris Bramley (Editor)
There is a scene two-thirds of the way through First Man in which a group of Apollo astronauts are admiring a Saturn V rocket that towers above them.
Buzz Aldrin, portrayed as forthright on the verge of tactless in the film, comes out with some uncomfortable truths about the motives behind the crew selection process; “I know it’s not what you want to hear,” he says. “Then maybe don’t say it,” Neil Armstrong retorts.
It’s one of a handful of moments I could count in the film, taken from James R Hansen’s official biography of the same name, when emotion is acted upon by Apollo 11’s commander. As the central character for a biopic, Neil Armstrong may at first seem rather flat.
But he did incredible things, and I found the film’s portrayal of his restraint and clarity of mind amid the immensity of project Apollo revelatory.
I thought the film was brilliant in conveying the pace of development and the scale of achievement that took place in the eight years between the opening scene – an X-15 flight in 1961 – and the close – Apollo 11’s successful return in 1969.
I felt the weight of expectation on Armstrong’s shoulders: the demanding superiors at NASA – men of few words, the unpredictable new spacecraft and the physical dangers he faced.
For Apollo 11 to end in the way we know it did, I came away with a new respect for Neil Armstrong’s crucial part in it and the quiet, measured way in which he dealt with the pressure.
Elizabeth Pearson (News Editor)
First Man is very much the story of Neil Armstrong.
Ryan Gosling does a fantastic job at playing a man who kept his thoughts and emotions under wraps, but still managing to convey the grief that underscored Armstrong’s life after the loss of his young daughter Karen.
Unfortunately, it’s rather inevitable in a film about such a reserved man that I walked away feeling like I didn’t know Armstrong any better.
But I think that might rather be the point – no one, not even his family, ever really knew what was going on inside Armstrong’s head.
Despite the fact we know that Apollo 11 succeeds, the film does an incredible job of making it seem anything but inevitable.
From technical failures to public objection, there is a sense that the mission might fail right up until the moment they first open the hatch on the lunar lander.
What really stuck out to me during the spaceflight scenes was the use of sound – during the launch of Gemini 8, as the metal creaked around my head and the bass vibrated my chair, I felt like I was right there in the cockpit with the astronauts.
Iain Todd (Staff Writer)
When we think of the Apollo missions, many of us imagine a slick, well-oiled machine of experts and infallible heroes. First Man shows that this wasn’t always the case.
It presents the Apollo programme warts and all: its successes and failures, the desperation of Cold War rivalries, and how the dangers of journeying to the Moon could tear whole families apart.
What’s most enthralling about First Man is the realism with which the story is told, as the cinematography thrusts the audience right in the middle of the rocket launches, re-entries and the first steps on the Moon.
At times this can be terrifying; the sounds and shudders of jet propulsion are scarily realistic, but are juxtaposed beautifully with the silent serenity of Armstrong’s experience on the lunar surface.
The performances are, largely speaking, fantastic, although appear at times a little restrained. It feels like we don’t fully get to know the characters to the extent that we might expect from a 2hr 20min running time.
Perhaps this is a testament to cool-headed nature of Armstrong and his colleagues as they focus on achieving the impossible.
One scene in which Armstrong discusses his upcoming mission with his young sons plays out like a press conference, with the Apollo 11 astronaut answering in familiar, non-committal phrases and technical jargon, showing little emotion on the surface.
Perhaps most touching is the depiction of the Armstrongs’ family life, from the loss of their daughter to the strain on Janet as she plays housewife and single mother while her husband is away from home getting all the glory.
The film is also beautifully shot; particularly as the Apollo 11 astronauts see the lunar surface up-close for the first time and encounter sunlight and shadow on its cratered surface.
First Man is a thorough depiction of the Apollo programme and its effect on the individuals involved, but is foremost the story of a pivotal point in one human’s life, and the successes and tragedies Armstrong faces as he tries to make sense of it all.