Review: First Man is out of this world NO WAIT I CAN DO BETTER

Director    Damien Chazelle
Written By    Josh Singer, James R Hansen
Starring    Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Lukas Haas, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Pablo Schreiber
Release    12 OCT (UK)    Certificate 12A
Review: First Man is out of this world NO WAIT I CAN DO BETTER Movie Review


Grade A-

Ali Gray

28th September 2018

I am from a generation who never had a Moon landing, and it’s probably just as well. I suspect 9/11 is to be our defining shared collective experience, one that united us in terror instead of awe, huddled as we were around TVs and computer screens to watch the world change forever, just not for the better. My generation would be unable to process a positive event of such magnitude without cynicism: if the Moon landing happened in 2018, the memes would be played out by breakfast, the conspiracy theories would be in effect by lunch and the astronaut who stepped off the spacecraft would be Milkshake Ducked by dinner (reminder: we couldn’t even enjoy the fact that scientists landed a probe on a fucking COMET because one of the engineers was wearing a sexist shirt). We deify Elon Musk, we don’t deserve a Moon landing. Watching First Man is probably as close as my generation is ever going to get to watching the human race extend its reach beyond the stars: it is a refreshingly old-fashioned, unashamedly straightforward account of mankind’s headiest achievement, and even speaking for a generation who are generally numb to this brand of back-patting throwback bio, I found its bald-faced nostalgia quite moving.

The problem First Man has, quite unlike most American Hero biopics, is that this particular American hero is severely lacking in personality. Neil Armstrong, even when played by twinkle-toed ladykiller Ryan Gosling, is the opposite of a movie star: quietly determined without being outwardly showy, unfazed by occasion, and resolutely square. He is a man comfortable in his stillness at the centre of the universe, even when the whole world is revolving around him. Therefore the issue inherent with the story of First Man is not that everyone already knows the ending, but the necessity that the star of the show be a boring and emotionless man, as per the rigorous demands of the job. By rights, Neil Armstrong had free reign to lord it around in gold chains and Stars and Stripes baggy pants every day for the rest of his life, like Buzz Aldrin yelling at the Moon on 30 Rock (“I walked on your FACE!”). But no. Dignity and solitude ‘til the end.

I wouldn't go in there for about 10, 15 minutes.

However, Armstrong’s disposition and Gosling’s dialled-down performance work in First Man’s favour: the fact that the man never met an emotion he couldn’t suppress means the scenes with his family, including the excellent Claire Foy as his wife Jan, take on a heartbreaking, tragic quality. Armstrong is capable of fixing astronomic equations at Mach-4, but he can’t square his job up there with his job down here. The scene where Armstrong is strong-armed by his wife to say goodbye to his two sons the night before the Apollo 11 flight is painful to watch, the necessary emotional tools utterly eluding him in the moment (“Does anyone have any more questions at this time?”). Gosling expertly internalises the overwhelming burden felt by Armstrong: the risk of death, the fear of failure, the responsibilities as a husband and father, the quite literal weight of the world, all simmering beneath the surface. Contained passion is an archetype Gosling plays well, notably in the movies of Nicolas Winding Refn, but here Armstrong does not have the vent of violence to let loose.

Gosling expertly internalises the overwhelming burden felt by Armstrong
The entire movie is bedded in American grit and reserve. NASA bigwigs give Armstrong the big gig in a bathroom before he’s even finished washing his hands - there is no grandstanding or dollying up the story. There is drama enough in the journey - test flights that end in success, test flights that end in flames, orbits that spin out of control, funeral after funeral after funeral - but the restraint shown by Damien Chazelle in not giving First Man a full Hollywood makeover is admirable. The closest the movie gets to artificial drama, a hook to hang the story on, is the way Armstrong’s grief over the death of his baby daughter is used as a convenient narrative throughline - as touching as it is, it does feel rather like a studio note to make Armstrong more relatable.

Chazelle shoots the action up close and personal, crammed into the command modules with his cast, refusing to cut away to outside the craft. First Man is the new standard bearer for shakycam, but it’s justified: both set and sound design is impeccable, breathtaking in the truest sense of the word, as the modules shake and scream and buckle under the intense pressures of space. And then, silence, as the eagle lands. First Man’s most shiver-inducing shot sees Armstrong and Aldrin open the hatch, but it is Chazelle’s camera that takes the first small step. Armstrong stares out at the lunar surface, the culmination of his entire life and career, not to mention billions of dollars and countless lost lives, and sees... nothing. An astonishing absence of anything. A deafening void. It is haunting to say the least, eerie and otherworldly and profoundly, chillingly alien. Seeing the American flag go in, like some sort of demented conservative porno, is the last thing on your mind: no matter the size and importance of the accomplishment, the victory feels small in that moment.

Leave space here.

First Man excels at making you long for a different age, a pre-Space Force era where mankind raced to expand its horizons, not to isolate itself. The entire experience is exhausting, and there was something about the clinical, matter-of-factness about it all that put a lump in my throat - as I write this, there’s a full moon in the night sky, and I still can’t quite believe we landed on it using technology less powerful than the tablet I’m currently writing on. Some may find the movie’s lack of overt emotion leaves them cold, but it’s that vacuum of feeling in which the movie does its best work. It’s a movie that tells the most famous story ever told, but doesn’t take any shortcuts. Telling the movie through the eyes of Armstrong, a man who shows his passion through his work and not his person, is a mission in itself; to paraphrase John F Kennedy, it’s a choice to tell a story not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Additional observations
- Do you remember the MarsOne Project? It was a privately funded space exploration organisation who claimed to have the funds and the technology to launch the first manned mission to Mars. It was also, clearly, a Ponzi scheme, but I digress - in any case, it never got off the ground. Anyway, 500 ‘astronauts’ were selected from around the world to be shot into space without a return ticket, each chosen to represent specific fields of excellence. Bizarrely, a girl I used to sit next to at work was chosen. She was very au fait about the whole thing. I was recently reminded of a conversation had between her and a friend of mine, who was told she was struggling to get through the astrophysics text books MarsOne asked her to read, but that she reckoned she’d “get through on my personality”. And she did. And this is why we can’t have nice things any more. Imagine volunteering to be a space pioneer then getting stuck in the bunk with someone like that - things go would from zero to Event Horizon before you even got past the Moon.
- I confess, I am not big on America’s history of space travel, so it took me a while to put names to faces, and most of those faces are middle-aged white guys (I’m reminded of the crew in the Simpsons space episode: “They’re a colourful bunch: - a mathematician, a different kind of mathematician and a statistician”). I honestly thought Jason Clarke’s character was Buzz Aldrin for most of the movie.
- I really liked the movie’s final scene. Armstrong is quarantined, divided from his wife by a wall of glass, their separation made literal. That tiny, hopeful connection they make through the partition is a lovely grace note to end on.

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