In an age of flag-waving white power, this film could have been a Trumpian Triumph of the Will, a paean to American greatness. But in focusing on Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling), his associates and his family, First Man is a curious thing: a gaze at the tree, rather than the forest, in a way that feels substantial.
From the beginning, what we get is the view from Neil Armstrong's perspective, as a pilot testing aircraft to break through the Earth's atmosphere. It's all strained: the heavy breathing, the blinkered vision through a narrow range of sight, and the vibrations and shaking of the aircraft's body of screwed-on metal sheets as if it could give way at any moment. The isolation too is jarring, simultaneously on an island all alone, while also on the most intense kind of fairground ride of loose bolts and rusted metal, threatening to collapse in the blink of an eye. Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon, this isn't.
We go beyond this contraption-as-coffin experience to Armstrong's family life: a likeably resilient wife played by Claire Foy and two young sons, as well as a death in the family that fills Armstrong with unspoken remorse. The critic Mark Kermode describes First Man as being about grief and bereavement and it's this as well; a scene where Armstrong is made by his wife to sit down with his sons for a final talk before the mission is brilliantly reflective of Armstrong's emotionless self-repression. But for me, an additional strength of the film is its ambiguous depiction of the mission's value and whether it was worth the risk and the sacrifice. More could have been shown of the racism and wealth disparity of American society at this time - we get relative snippets of this issue in the background. At a narrower but harrowing level, however, several colleagues of Armstrong – many of them with young families – also die during the trialling of the journey and the film leaves you under no illusions: the technology seems alarmingly rickety, and the step from Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space, and this moon landing tens of thousands of miles away, truly justifies Armstrong's statement, 'a giant leap for mankind.'First Man, then, is a film worth seeing, for creating a new perspective of space travel, ironically by narrowing our view. Was the moon landing worth it? I'm glad we got no American flag implanted in the powdery surface of this lifeless moon, and instead saw the limits of the technology. The mission of these astronauts was heroic, but that's in spite of, not because of, the massively unequal and racialized society that produced this achievement.