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Posts Tagged ‘First Man’

As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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