Smart retelling of the Moon landing
First Man (M) 141 mins Directed by Damien Chazelle Reviewed by Graeme Tuckett ★★★★★
You know the broad strokes of the story. The Apollo 11 mission got to the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface while Michael Collins orbited above. The trio flew home to ticker-tape parades and a high-water mark of American technical and economic superiority was set which has maybe never been bested.
So why, especially in these years of American division and recrimination, would you tell the story again?
Because, maybe, the story has never properly been told. And when it is, and the myth of ‘‘the greatest generation’’ is properly excavated, then we might have more to learn from the Apollo 11 than we realised.
If all director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) wanted to achieve with First Man was to tell us what happened, this would still be a thunderously ambitious undertaking. But this film goes further, succeeding at showing us not just the key events as they unfolded, but also setting those events in a historical context, giving them a blindsiding human scale, and only laying out the bigbudget moments once we properly understand the human stories that underpin them.
First Man sidesteps all the usual conventions of mythologising the Space Race to instead focus on what ‘‘The Right Stuff’’ might really be made of: fear, loss, failure overcome, and lessons hardlearned. There is no swagger or bravado in these men, just a quiet conviction that what they were attempting was worth the price they paid.
And then Chazelle goes further, amply illustrating that the space programme was far from universally supported, even in the United States. After the tumult and tragedy of 1968, many Americans were in scant mood for a project costing untold billions of dollars while the tragedy of the American war in Vietnam was still unfolding, King and Kennedy were dead from assassins’ bullets and American inner cities were collapsing under the weight of corruption, poverty and despair.
I wondered for a moment whether Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon would turn up on the soundtrack. Sure enough, it did.
Meanwhile at home, the
There is no swagger or bravado in these men, just a quiet conviction that what they were attempting was worth the price they paid.
Armstrong family cope with tragedy of their own. Working directly from James Hansen’s acclaimed biography, Chazelle paints a picture of a complex marriage between two strong and intensely private individuals struggling for normality in a definitively abnormal situation. Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy (The Crown) are both sublime here, absolutely nailing the dialogue and the far more important spaces between. When what a cynic might call Foy’s ‘‘Oscar moment’’ arrives, she burns the house down.
Chazelle chooses a Kubrick-like formality of frame when the astronauts are confined inside the bellowing machinery, but takes a loose, observational approach to life at home and work on Earth. It’s a smart, thoughtful approach that yields some unexpected emotional pay-offs.
‘‘Smart’’ and ‘‘thoughtful’’ are pretty much the two adjectives that best describe this film. First Man delivers its best moments in quiet and unexpected places. A few perfectly placed flashbacks, a dinner table argument, and a quiet joke between buddies are not the sort of content we usually associate with great drama set amid technology and exploration, but First Man makes it look as though everyone else who has told this or a similar story has approached the narrative from entirely the wrong direction.
Get the background, the marriage, the children, the friendships and the heartache drawn in accurately, and let the showstopping, effects-driven content deliver the pay-offs. First Man is the opposite of triumphalist, but an absolute triumph from beginning to end.
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man.