In 1961, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) was a test pilot for the United States military, and not without mishap as on one memorable flight the machine went out of control and he crashed it, fortunately escaping injury himself. But this was the kind of hazard pilots ran the risk of every time they went up, and he was one of the lucky ones: not everyone who was a pioneer of air travel would survive, and that included space travel. During his Presidency, John F. Kennedy promised the world that Americans would reach the Moon, and there was a race to reach the satellite with the Soviet Union. Armstrong was to join this programme, immersing himself in his work often at the expense of his home life...
But who cares about Neil Armstrong's home life when he was the first man on the Moon, as the title refers to? This film cares, as it wanted a rounded picture of one of the most famous men who ever lived, so half the picture was given over to Claire Foy as his wife Janet, supposedly the great woman behind this great man, as we are told there always is, but actually conveying a picture of a marriage that was a source of enormous anxiety for her. Time and again we see Janet looking hassled and worried, keeping it together for the sake of her two young boys, but nevertheless terrified that one day she will receive a telephone call to inform her that Neil will not be returning home today.
Curiously, this did not make her more sympathetic, as instead she came across a cold fish, Foy's large eyes bringing out little but the emotions suppressed by that fear, and director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer did not offer her many chances to relax and look as if there was anything in life she enjoyed, maybe not even the company of this man who is putting her through so much stress. Gosling was a different matter, as his Neil was not a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, preferring to keep his feelings to himself, whereupon another issue arose: how do you get inside the head of a man who doesn't want to let anyone in, an extremely private figure with a public standing?
The path into Armstrong's mind that Chazelle and Singer settled upon was not one of humour, as this was a deeply solemn experience, it was one of tragedy. Early in the film, we saw how much Neil loved his daughter, and how wrenching it was for him when she died of cancer while still a toddler. This was the event that informed everything he did afterwards: be that closing down in company, or putting himself forward for the Apollo Moon mission, and the reason - to pay tribute to the lost little girl - was at once something for the audience to understand about the man, yet also somewhat simplistic, overthinking his restrained persona. We certainly did not see him being particularly close to his two young sons, as if his heart had been broken and he was not prepared to even allow it to mend, never mind be vulnerable to further agonies.
But what of the mission itself? The attention to detail had a documentary-like realism, and Chazelle's intention to keep this as personal as he could, never to forget these were genuine people, human beings carrying out this most extraordinary of endeavours, meant his cameras were in their faces for what seemed like great swathes of the running time. It was not merely the space capsules that were claustrophobic, it was everything in the lives of the astronauts as well, and that contrasted strikingly with the vast distances travelled and the vistas we saw once the film had reached the scenes we all knew were on their way. Once again, that pressing fear of death was ever-present, as if the journey to the Moon was a way of achieving immortality when the normal lifespan of an adult was always going to put paid to you eventually, and if there was a disaster, that was another motive for being remembered, though one you would wish to avoid. It was an intimate story of a man who was anything but on this evidence, handsomely told yet oddly (appropriately?) academic no matter its tugs on the heartstrings. Music by Justin Hurwitz.
[AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL 4 FEBRUARY, 2019 AND ON 4K ULTRA HD, BLU-RAY AND DVD 18 FEBRUARY, 2019.
Universal's Blu-ray has deleted scenes, an audio commentary and about a hundred featurettes that fill in gaps Chazelle wasn't interested in highlighting in the film itself.]