First Man (PG)
I’ll never forget the night in 1969 when I sat transfixed in front of a television set watching Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon. I ran outside the house to look up at the Moon itself, marvelling at the fact that it was the same as the one on the television. Now there was now a man on it – and it wasn’t made of green cheese after all.
Armstrong was an unassuming man. I read somewhere that he was at a party once and spent the whole night listening to people talking about their holiday adventures. When someone took him aside and said, “why are you so quiet? You were on the Moon, for God’s sake,” he replied, “yes, but I haven’t really been anywhere else”.
What better actor, then, to play him than Ryan Gosling, who exudes a charming shyness as well as a stubborn determination.
Because we know the ‘story’ – for want of a better word – of this film, our attention focuses on how it’s portrayed rather than any startling developments in the narrative. That’s why it’s appropriate that Damien Chazelle – who already directed Gosling in La La Land – is behind the camera. You know you’re going to get a nuanced approach.
Armstrong didn’t know if he was going to come back from the Moon, or even get there in one piece. There were many disasters in the lead-up to his ground-breaking journey into the stellar abyss. Today a Moon landing may appear low on the danger list but in 1969 it was uncharted terrain.
Claire Foy – equally impressive as his wife – gives a heart-wrenching performance. She knows her husband relates better to airplanes than to people, that he keeps his emotions in check to an unhealthy degree. At their ‘last supper’ he’s formal with his sons. The sense of danger is imminent. He plays it down but omens hang in the air.
He’s already lost a daughter – she died aged two with a brain tumour. Her death may have goaded him to this reckless adventure as a ‘sailor in the sky’.
Based on James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, this is a worm’s-eye view of a seismic moment in history. We don’t get an astronaut, we get a man. A primal, Darwinian man.
We’re in that rickety space capsule. We feel it vibrating; we’re deafened by its cacophony. We tremble with the fear of the unknown as it reaches lift-off. When it reaches the moon we feel a simultaneous mixture of awe and anti-climax. Is this all there is? Barren rock? Was the (sorry) ‘astronomical’ cost of the mission justified?
The planting of the flag isn’t shown, which has caused the film to be labelled anti-American. This is unfair. Chazelle’s emphasis is on psychology rather than jingoism.
Not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has there been a film as bone-crunchingly cerebral as this. Fasten your seatbelts for a bumpy ride.