First man

A trip to the Moon…

Total Film - - Contents -

A grand day out or a big mound of cheese?

What does it take to be the first man on the Moon? It’s a ques­tion that Damien Chazelle’s First Man asks in the sub­tlest of ways. Telling the story of Neil Arm­strong, the man who first stepped out of Apollo 11 in 1969 and into the his­tory books, Chazelle’s fourth movie is ut­terly sur­pris­ing. If Whiplash and La La Land, his sec­ond and third films, were both ex­u­ber­ant love let­ters to jazz and the Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal re­spec­tively, this is a more but­toned-down but deeply au­then­tic salute to Arm­strong and his Nasa col­leagues, who risked their lives to win the space race.

Re­u­nit­ing with his La La Land di­rec­tor, Ryan Gosling plays Arm­strong. For an ac­tor who loves to in­ter­nalise, keep­ing emo­tions be­low the sur­face, the tac­i­turn as­tro­naut is seem­ingly a role that fits him like a space glove. When we first see Arm­strong, it’s 1961 and he is fly­ing the X-15, a hy­per­sonic rock­et­pow­ered air­craft ca­pa­ble of mak­ing it to the cusp of outer space. He re­turns to Earth and the Mo­jave Desert with a bang. “Kid’s a good en­gi­neer, but he’s dis­tracted,” says one of his col­leagues.

It’s this ‘dis­trac­tion’ that Chazelle ex­plores, although not in a way you might ex­pect. Arm­strong is not a head-in-the-clouds type, dream­ing of con­quer­ing the uni­verse. In­stead, he’s a prag­matic fam­ily man – one who’s con­tend­ing with his youngest child Karen’s (Lucy Stafford) ter­mi­nal ill­ness. The script by Josh Singer

(The Post, Spot­light) doesn’t linger on her suf­fer­ing, but its im­pact res­onates all through the movie. Un­able to talk to his wife Janet (Claire Foy) or any of his friends about his crip­pling loss, Arm­strong re­mains on emo­tional lock-down through­out.

MIS­SION: CON­TROL

Maybe it’s this abil­ity to shut ev­ery­thing else out – the horrors of los­ing those clos­est to you – that aids Arm­strong in per­form­ing the most com­plex func­tions un­der the high­est pres­sures in space. His laser-like fo­cus never comes into ques­tion. But his abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with his fam­ily cer­tainly does. “What are the chances you’re not com­ing back,” yells the ex­as­per­ated Janet, who in one of the finest scenes in the film forces her hus­band to talk to his kids, Ricky and Mark, about the very real pos­si­bil­ity that he may never re­turn, when all he’d rather do is qui­etly pack his suit­case.

Span­ning the eight years lead­ing up to the Moon land­ing, Chazelle’s film care­fully plots out the tri­als and tribu­la­tions the Nasa ge­niuses face – the tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs and break­downs, not to men­tion wan­ing pub­lic sup­port for an ex­er­cise many be­lieve is cost­ing too many tax­payer dol­lars. With Arm­strong joined by fel­low trail­blaz­ers Ed White (Ja­son Clarke) and El­liott See (Patrick Fugit), the first half con­cen­trates on Project Gem­ini, as tech­niques to aid the Apollo mis­sion – such as dock­ing

‘DON’T EX­PECT ANY SWOOP­ING NOTES OF TRI­UMPHAL­ISM’

a lu­nar craft and the moth­er­ship in space – are de­vel­oped.

Am­bi­tious and art­ful, the ac­tion scenes are beau­ti­fully re­alised, with the help of Li­nus Sand­gren’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy and pro­duc­tion de­sign from Christo­pher Nolan’s reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor, Nathan Crow­ley. In­deed, a line can surely be traced be­tween Nolan’s In­ter­stel­lar and Chazelle’s movie, which sim­i­larly treats the space race with the se­ri­ous­ness and emo­tional power it de­serves. Credit is also due to Justin Hur­witz, Chazelle’s reg­u­lar com­poser (he bagged two Os­cars for La La Land), whose throb­bing, tense score pro­pels the nar­ra­tive.

LAND­ING AHOY

As we get ever closer to the main event, Chazelle avoids turn­ing First Man into a plat­form for ram­pant US flag-wav­ing. In­stead, what lingers is a sense of melan­choly, as you’re left won­der­ing just what per­sonal sac­ri­fices Arm­strong – and those that didn’t make it to the Moon – had to en­dure. The Ea­gle may well land safely, but don’t ex­pect any swoop­ing notes of tri­umphal­ism. Just a lit­tle bounce around the Moon’s crusty grey sur­face, as Arm­strong and fel­low as­tro­naut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) make his­tory.

While Gosling is tightly wound, not un­like his char­ac­ter in Drive, there’s a more demon­stra­tive, show-stop­ping turn from Claire Foy, the woman try­ing to hold their fam­ily to­gether. “I mar­ried Neil be­cause I wanted a nor­mal life,” she says, but there seems lit­tle hope of that.

Whether some will take to this blend of kitchen-sink drama and science fact re­mains to be seen; it may not thrill those look­ing for the unadul­ter­ated highs of Chazelle’s ear­lier movies. But even with the di­rec­tor aim­ing for som­bre re­al­ism, you’ll be left in awe of what Arm­strong and his peers achieved. James Mot­tram

THE VER­DICT

Chazelle broad­ens his hori­zons with this su­perbly de­tailed ac­count of the Moon land­ing. Gosling and Foy are out of this world. See p56 for more.

the nasa bods could also knock out a mean seeded bloomer be­tween mis­sions.

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