Ryan Gosling landed safely in Venice with his fellow crew members from “First Man,” the highly anticipated opening film at the Venice Film Festival. It turned out to be a hugely successful mission as the film was met with wild applause from audiences and glowing reviews after its world premiere. Before the day was over, the media began touting First Man as an early Oscar favourite and could well earn trophies for both Gosling and the film’s director, Damien Chazelle, who previously collaborated on 2016’s La La Land. The film recounts the personal and professional journey of American astronaut Neil Armstrong as he underwent a decade or rigorous training as part of the NASA space programme and Apollo 11 space mission. He would eventually make his mark in history by becoming to the first man to set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969.
“It’s a story about the landing on the moon but it’s also the story of a man who had to go to the moon in order to land on earth,” Gosling said. “There’s the physical mission but there’s also the emotional journey that Neil is on. My interpretation is that Neil was also looking for meaning and answers that he couldn’t find on earth and so he was compelled to look to the universe for those answers…There’s a duality that exists between the story that we know and the story that we were able to piece together and interpret.”
Gosling, who has distinguished himself in both smaller indie films – Drive, Blue Valentine, The Ides of March a – as well as big budget studio fare such as last year’s Blade Runner 2049 and of course La La Land – gives arguably his finest performance to date as Armstrong, capturing both the man’s steely determination as well as his introverted and cryptic personality. Gosling headlines an impressive First Man cast that includes Claire Foy (Armstrong’s wife, Janet), Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas as Armstrong’s fellow Apollo 11
astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, respectively), Ciaran Hinds (NASA flight director Gene Kranz), Pablo Schneider (astronaut Jim Lovell), Kyle Handler (Deke Slayton, head of astronaut training), and Jason Clarke (astronaut Ed White).
First Man is every bit as gripping in its portrait of the highly successful and memorable Apollo 11 mission as is Ron Howard’s depiction of a nearly catastrophic subsequent moon mission in Apollo 13. And just as Hanks added gravitas to that movie, Gosling in his own way captures Armstrong’s steady, resolute self. Much of the film revolves around the nearly decade-long astronaut training programme that saw Armstrong master not only the physical demands of space flight but the complex engineering and scientific tasks which the Apollo 11 mission entailed.
Said Gosling of the mission and its monumental undertaking: “It’s hard to imagine the magnitude of risk, the potential for failure, and the improbability of success when a few pioneers decided to leave the earth.”
The 37-year-old Gosling was born and raised in Cornwall, Ontario and the handsome Canadian now makes his home in Los Angeles with his partner of the last six years, Cuban-American actress Eva Mendes, 44, and their two young daughters, Esmeralda, 3, and Amada Lee, 2.
Here is what Ryan Gosling had to say in Venice on Wednesday, August 29th about his experience on First Man. Note: the following comments have been condensed and edited.
How did you approach playing a legendary figure like Neil Armstrong?
It was a challenge because Neil was so remote and private and fiercely introspective and we had to honour that and also create windows so that audiences might experience what he was experiencing emotionally.
What struck you in particular about the NASA space programme?
Everything I learned about the movie made it seem all the more impossible. It’s an incredible story and experience. The extremes of the story were so amazing – the idea that these astronauts were using their flashlight of scientific knowledge to search the mysteries of the universe and then coming home to mow the lawn and taking out the trash. The duality of their experience and that of their families is hard to wrap your head around.
What was your perspective on how the film presents Armstrong’s personal journey and his life with his family during all the intense training and preparation?
The film is two stories: one it’s about landing on the moon and the other is about someone who needed to go to the moon in order to land on earth. Neil was going through a lot emotionally at the time of these missions and there was a private journey that he was on as well as (the space flight).
What kind of research did you do as part of your preparations for the role?
When I first went to NASA and I was given a tour by one of the astronauts that had just come back from the space station. He was talking about the perspective that being in space gives you and to see the world floating in the vastness of it. It’s scary but it gives you an incredible perspective on your life. It’s amazing because you get home and three days later you’re still honking at people in traffic and getting back to the problems of everyday life. It’s a perspective that’s really hard to hang onto.
Did you meet with members of Armstrong’s family (Neil Armstrong died in 2012 at age 82 – ED)?
The sons of Neil Armstrong helped me a lot, and I got to know his (second) wife (Carol), whose role in history is very important. NASA opened the door, I visited her museum dedicated to Armstrong.
Was it gratifying to get another chance at working with Damien Chazelle again after your highly successful work together on La La Land?
Damien is half Canadian and this helps. (Laughs) The two films I’ve shot with him are the kind of spectacular works we all want to see in the movie theatres. I think Damien has strong instincts, he knows what people want, and he has a special gift for the cinema. It was nice to get back to work and dive into something that is just as vast as this – there was so much for us to immerse ourselves in and it was a fascinating process to get to go to NASA and get to meet with people who were involved in these missions, to get to see what NASA is working on now and what they were working on then and spend time with Neil’s family was an incredible opportunity.
Apparently, though, you’re not a big fan of the kind of training you underwent in giant centrifuges and other machines which simulate some of the conditions of takeoff and the kinds of g-forces Armstrong and astronauts face?
No…I also thought it was important for my character to learn the ABCs of flying so I thought that what I needed to do was learn how to fly. Neil could fly before he could drive. But not too long into my flight lessons the instructor asked me to take the plane into a controlled stall, and I thought “This is a terrible idea.” This was when I understood that there was a reason why Neil Armstrong became a great astronaut and why I did not… There was something very different about him and a lot of other astronauts. It also requires a certain breed of person to get into a plane (referring to Armstrong’s experience as a test pilot – ED) that has never been flown before and push it to its breaking point for the sole purpose of furthering our knowledge of aeronautics.
How do you think you would have handled that kind of risk?
I wouldn’t! (Smiles)…I realized very early on that I was very different from Neil in that way. (laughs) I can’t imagine the risks that they took to accomplish these missions and the sacrifices they made and that their families had to make as well. It’s such a singular experience and hard to relate to, really.
When you were a young boy growing up in Canada, did you dream of becoming an astronaut?
I don’t want to bring down the room but I grew up post-Challenger (the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle in January, 1986 which killed all seven astronauts – ED) and there was always a sense of sadness around space exploration and around human space flight. That accident happened when I was very young and it was always very fresh in my mind… An when the subject did come up it had an inappropriate sense of melancholy around it. That’s very different from the experience of people growing up in the 60s where these astronauts were making the impossible seem possible. The fact is that, as Damien Chazelle says, space adventure no longer has any iconic value for our generation. It’s not even an adventure anymore and children aren’t dreaming of becoming astronauts anymore.
One of the most poignant moments in the film comes when Neil, at his wife’s insistence, is explaining the risks involved as he is about to leave on the moon mission?
Yeah, that was a hard scene to do. It’s hard to imagine. Certainly being a father myself, which I think is the greatest privilege in your life, the idea of going to work is hard anyway for a parent. But imagine leaving the planet for the day – it’s hard to fathom and a lot of pressure on the family as well.
Some people today are signing up for missions to go into orbit which are being planned in the near future. Would you ever want to go into space?
No, you couldn’t pay me to go to Mars!