In the shadow of the moon

The Guardian - G2 - - Reviews Film - Peter ter Brad­shaw shaw

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.

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