In Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, you often get the impression that Nasa is just making it up as it goes along.
Most astronaut movies present space travel as something shiny – something beautiful, majestic and highly controlled. Think glimmering spacecraft, pristine white astronaut suits and star-spangled vistas of the Milky Way.
First Man, the new Neil Armstrong biopic from Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle, gives a rather less sanitized impression of astronaut life in the 60s, as the US raced to put the first man on the Moon with its Apollo program. The rockets are rickety, the spacesuits are vomit-stained, and everything just looks a bit grubby. Things go wrong. Equipment malfunctions. Astronauts die.
It’s this ugly realism that makes First Man so gripping to watch. The film opens with a white-knuckle scene in which Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, pilots an X-15 aircraft during a research flight. As he zooms through the air, the plane around him is shaking and shuddering like crazy. He flies to a height of 63 kilometers then makes to return to the Earth’s surface, only to bounce off the atmosphere. Gosling plays Armstrong as cool as a cucumber under pressure, landing the aircraft safely (if a little off-course).
The real threat of death and disaster is a constant presence throughout the film, which makes it genuinely suspenseful – quite a remarkable feat, given we all know how it ends. After Armstrong is selected as an astronaut, a Nasa scientist tells the new recruits, “We’ve chosen a job so difficult, requiring so many technical developments, we’re going to have to start from scratch” – and a lot of the time, it really does seem like they’re just making it up as they go along.
At one point, a technician can’t get a buckle to fasten as he straps an astronaut into a rocket capsule. “Anyone got a Swiss Army knife?” he asks. At another, Armstrong’s wife Jan Armstrong (Claire Foy), marches into mission control and accuses Nasa astronaut office chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and his team of not knowing what they’re doing. She charges them with being no better than “boys playing with balsa wood” and, as we watch Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott on the Gemini 8 mission, their rocket spinning uncontrollably after docking with the Agena spacecraft, it’s hard to disagree.
Armstrong and Scott survive that one thanks to Armstrong’s quick thinking moments from unconsciousness, but plenty of their colleagues are less lucky. The most harrowing moment of the film comes when we see the crew of Apollo 1 take their seats in the spacecraft cabin for a test, strapping themselves in and closing the door. For viewers with a passing knowledge of space history, it’s a real heart-in-mouth moment as the astronauts moan about their communication equipment not functioning properly, joking that they’ll never get to the Moon if they can’t get it to work before they’ve even left the Earth. Suddenly, a wire sparks. Fire consumes the cabin in seconds.
By refusing to gloss over such incidents, First Man manages to show the incredible human skill and technical accomplishments of the Apollo program while refraining from glamorizing the dangerous reality of the project. After the Apollo 1 disaster and the death of more friends and colleagues, even Armstrong appears to question the human cost of the mission. There’s the monetary cost to consider too; Chazelle includes one scene of protestors, with soul singer Leon Bridges making an appearance as African-American poet Gil Scott-Heron and reciting his poem “Whitey on the Moon” (I can’t pay no doctor bill / but Whitey’s on the Moon; Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / while Whitey’s on the Moon.)
By the time we get closer to the actual Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong and his colleagues seem less excited about the idea of landing on the Moon than they do resigned to it – except for Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin, whose chipper, know-it-all demeanor doesn’t ingratiate him with either his fellow astronauts or viewers of the film. Gosling’s Armstrong is not held up as a perfect hero either, growing distant from his wife and children as he progresses in his career. Indeed, his failure to deal with his grief over the death of his young daughter Karen informs the film’s narrative arc as much as the space race does.
On the day of the Apollo 11 launch, the film’s natural climax, the Saturn V judders its way into lunar orbit before Armstrong and Aldrin make their descent to the surface in the Eagle. Again, it’s not the finely-tuned trip you might imagine. A “1202” error pops up several times on the astronauts’ dashboard – and they can’t remember what it stands for. Neither can the NASA team back on Earth. Craters are unexpectedly large. Fuel runs low. We see the action unfold from inside the astronaut’s cabin, and as the fuel ticks down and the error messages blare, you can’t help but consider the absurdity of the whole idea. You’re going to land this? On the Moon?
When the Eagle finally lands, it almost comes as a surprise.
This article first appeared on Wired.co.uk