Okay, hands up if you don’t know that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon. (Sorry – first person.) If you don’t, it shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, it happened nearly fifty years ago, and a lot has happened since then, so what he did back on 21 July 1969 could so easily be overlooked, or forgotten maybe. And it’s not as if the US has a manned space programme any more. So this is history, recent history to be sure, but something that a lot of people should know about, and even if they can’t remember Armstrong’s name or that he was the first, they should be aware that a handful of very lucky astronauts got to walk on the Moon.
With all that in mind, the latest movie from director Damien Chazelle – Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016) – looks set to address the issue, putting Armstrong and his “leap for Man” firmly in the public spotlight again. In some ways, it’s surprising that the Apollo 11 mission hasn’t been given the big screen treatment already, but now that it’s here, the trailer – admirably assembled in the way that all trailers for “important” movies should be – begs one question above all others: why does it look and sound like a thriller? We all – sorry, most of us – know the outcome, so why does the trailer make First Man look and feel like there’s some doubt as to whether or not the mission will succeed? And “the most dangerous mission in history”? Hasn’t anyone seen Apollo 13 (1995)?
Still, it does have a great cast, with Ryan Gosling portraying Armstrong as all steely jawed determination, and Claire Foy as his first wife, Janet (equally serious and determined), but the trailer doesn’t give us much more to work with in terms of the real people they’re playing, and how true to life their performances are. The trailer concentrates instead on quotable soundbites – “We have to fail down here so we don’t fail up there” – and pounding music beats to push the tension of the launch. In many respects it’s a trailer designed to make the movie look good (naturally), but it does so by being exactly the kind of trailer you’d expect for this kind of movie: dramatic, forceful, and a little too dry for its own good.