In the shadow of the moon
Damien Chazelle plays in the key of C major with his visually ravishing, dramatically conservative story of Neil Armstrong: the first man on the moon. Armstrong was the American Adam, without an Eve, without a downfall; an explorer who found his Eden, came back, withdrew enigmatically from public life and lived to see the world lose interest in space travel. Like Concorde, it was a type of futurism that became a thing of the past.
A more questioning or nuanced movie might have placed the moon landing halfway through the story and then focused on the long, mysterious and anti-climactic nature of Armstrong’s life on Earth. Chazelle – understandably – makes the moon landing the climax and the glorious main event. It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture. There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realising what that represents.
It is also a film that downgrades the patriotic fervour of the landing, something that has already reduced some on America’s right to a spluttering rage. Chazelle abolishes the planting of the stars and stripes on the moon. Then there is that remarkable phrase with which this cautious, unpoetic man delighted the world and astonished his comrades: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Didn’t he mean “a man” – or is that what he said and we misheard?) Again, a slightly less reverent film would have shown Armstrong shyly honing that phrase, maybe going through pencil-and-paper drafts. Not here. The mystery of its composition is left untouched.
Ryan Gosling gives a performance of muscular intelligence and decency as Armstrong, a man of calm and restraint, lacking what no one in the 60s called emotional intelligence. The film suggests that this absence of a normal human boiling point is vital to his success. He stays cool and focused in the spacecraft under conditions that would reduce most people to a blinding panic.
But Chazelle’s film hints at a crucial aspect of Armstrong’s life that prevents us thinking of him as a cold fish. His daughter Karen died of a brain tumour in 1962, at the age of three. Did that terrible grief somehow drive Armstrong? Did he somehow want to bring off his great triumph in her honour? Or was it more that the unexpressed agony of her death cauterised his emotions, resulting in fatalistic level-headedness? All of these possible explanations are present in Chazelle’s sympathetic and sensitive drama.
There is a drily humorous moment when Armstrong’s longsuffering wife Jan (a thankless role for Claire Foy) insists that he talk to his children on the eve of the moon mission to prepare them for the possibility that he may not come back. Poor, stolid Armstrong treats it like a Nasa press conference: “Are there any other questions?” he asks them.
The film takes us through the slow buildup of the 60s Nasa mission, through the pain of failed launches, bungled tests and, most harrowingly, the cabin fire that killed three crew members of Apollo 1 in 1967. The film touches, perfunctorily, on whether a colossally expensive space shot is justified in times of great hardship and, indeed, racial injustice. The film’s attitude is, in Lear’s words: reason not the need.
But the point is that the tragedy, failure and arguments are a sacrificial purifying process, a winnowing away of imperfection prior to the great event. As Armstrong says: “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there.” No compromises. Only perfection will do.
I was reminded of the tyrannical music teacher played by JK Simmons in Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash, but First Man lacks the same ambiguity: here, there is no debate about the drive for the highest standards. The film’s narrative direction takes us away from the difficulty to the great sublime moment, and then … it’s over. The ending has a resounding impact, but does raise the question: what was the point?
We have seen a number of highly entertaining films about tangential aspects of the space race. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures reveals the untold contribution of AfricanAmerican women to the scientific work of Nasa (unmentioned in this film). Ron Howard’s Apollo
13 is about the nail-biting neardisaster that followed Armstrong’s apotheosis. First Man is almost in danger of being overawed by the sheer central importance of what it is about. Yet Chazelle tells Armstrong’s story with certainty and verve.