Over the moon

Five stars for First Man

Waikato Times - - Front Page -

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 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.

There is no swag­ger or bravado in these men, just a quiet con­vic­tion that what they were at­tempt­ing was worth the price they paid.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Arm­strong in First Man.

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