In William Peter Blatty’s underrated 1980 mystery-thriller The Ninth Configuration, a grounded lunar astronaut played by Scott Wilson (who sadly died last week) delivers a heartbreaking soliloquy that perfectly encapsulates the existential crisis at the centre of much space-travel cinema. “See the stars, so cold, so far and so very lonely,” he says, plaintively. “What if I got there, got to the moon and couldn’t get back… I’m afraid to die alone, so far from home. And if there’s no God, then that’s really, really alone.”
That sense of cosmic isolation reverberates throughout a range of space movies, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris to Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (dubbed “the loneliest adventure of all”) and, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Now it resurfaces in powerful form in First Man, Damien Chazelle’s sombre, real-life account of the 1969 moon landing, which turns a spectacular space-race adventure into a low-key study of grief.
Adapted from James R Hansen’s book by Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer, First Man’s 60s-set narrative essentially picks up from Philip Kaufman’s 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Indeed, there’s at least one shot that seems very deliberately to quote from Kaufman’s sprawling masterpiece. But Whiplash director Chazelle’s sights are set on something more explicitly allegorical, as the insular Neil Armstrong finds himself caught between inner and outer space.
Chazelle’s La La Land star Ryan Gosling is the titular explorer whom we first meet almost skipping an experimental plane off into space. His superiors think he’s a danger to himself, and the film suggests a connection between his desire to slip the surly bonds of Earth and his bereavement at the loss of his young daughter, Karen. When Nasa puts out the call for trainee astronauts, his successful application seems to offer a new start. Yet it’s Karen’s memory that haunts Armstrong throughout training and into his Apollo 11 mission – a vision of her hair running through his fingers recurring at key moments of crisis.
Significantly, Gosling’s outwardly emotionless antihero seems to be lost in space even when down on Earth. Time and again, cinematographer Linus Sandgren frames him alone amid the darkened spaces of the Armstrong home – the camera gazing through doors, halls and hatchways that paint a black shroud around his softly illuminated figure. Brilliantly, Sandgren uses handheld 16mm for the up-close-and-personal scenes and 35mm for the industrial Nasa sequences, shifting to the stark Imax clarity of 65mm for the expansive silence of the moonscapes where Armstrong can finally confront his awful loss. While “space force” cheerleader Donald Trump may have declared (sight unseen) that the absence of an American flag-planting scene in First Man is “a terrible thing”, anyone with a pulse will recognise that there is more at stake here than some empty gesture of faux patriotism. In space, Donald, no one can hear you whine.
Chazelle describes this tale as existing “between the moon and the kitchen sink”, and, like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, he juxtaposes convincingly evoked Nasa sequences with back-garden scenes of beers and barbecues in which the moon glimmers distantly through the trees. Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong proves adept at keeping the connection between these two worlds open, even when the live feed from her husband’s spacecraft is cut. While Gosling plays everything close to his chest, it’s Foy who invites us into the unfolding drama with her wonderfully empathetic performance.
Like the Armstrongs’ under-stress marriage, the space vessels themselves are in constant danger of falling apart, accurately portrayed as an alarming collection of screws and rivets that Janet dismisses as “balsa wood” boys’ toys. It’s no surprise when someone asks for a Swiss army knife to do some last-minute adjustments. Rather than revelling in the majesty of space travel, First Man puts its audience inside a tin can as it shakes and rattles its claustrophobic way into the sky. Like The Right Stuff, there’s no sugar-coating the spectre of death that haunts even training missions. The horrors of fiery catastrophe hang heavy over the proceedings, with the shocking loss of friends and colleagues amplified through well-judged dramatic understatement.
Taking a lead from Lunar Rhapsody (a tune that Armstrong famously loved), Justin Hurwitz’s melancholy score incorporates the eerie, mournful wail of a theremin, once a staple of the sci-fi genre and most famously deployed by Bernard Herrmann in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here, it adds yet another note of longing and loss to a film that I found both powerfully moving and quietly profound.