Kids, do you remember the United States of America? Once the most powerful and exciting country on Earth, a corollary of its weather-making and aspiration was its space programme, ostensibly a means to broaden the horizons of mankind (a term that absorbs women like overspill) and take us to the next stage of our philosophical evolution, but actually the ultimate expression of competitive cock-play; a means to ground Soviet communism and prevent their toxic ideology seeping into the cosmos. No manifestation of this crusade was more potent and had greater historic significance than Neil Armstrong’s trip to the Moon.
Had First Man, an account of Armstrong’s mission from early test flights through to final selection, training and launch, been made a generation ago, when America was basking in the confidence and unified purpose of the Reagan years (assuming you’re white), proud of its achievements, unchallenged in its dominance, then it’s possible to imagine a very different film. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it. It exists in the form of Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff – a story fortified with American spunk. First Man, in the era before Challenger, before crippling debt, before China, before Trump, would have been all square jaws, salutes, and the stars and stripes fluttering in the breeze. A supporting cast of tenacious and wily flight controllers and all-American families, praying at home, would have been much in evidence; the grist for the American mill.
What marks Damien Chazelle’s movie as a contemporary account, is the decision to feature all the players we’d expect but keep the focus, with a Houston flight controller’s exactitude, on the personal life and impenetrable façade of Neil Armstrong. Portrayed by Ryan Gosling as a repressed ‘60s American man who, following the death of his young daughter from cancer, throws himself into lunar mission with the unflappable zeal of a man desperately trying to avoid a difficult and revealing conversations with his wife, Janet, he’s no walking set of values. A pensive Claire Foy, playing Mrs Armstrong, provides the movie’s passion and expression. Twenty years ago, Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13, would have been fired for turning in a movie like this. Sadly, he didn’t and he wasn’t.
Armstrong, says Chazelle, was motivated by the need to escape the surly bonds of grief on Earth, as much as his compulsion to penetrate heaven. The duty he expresses in short, controlled bursts is unwavering, but it’s also de-nationalised; there’s no sense that the Armstrong of this retelling is acting for Uncle Sam, rather the need to believe in something bigger than himself, something greater than his pain – not just the ideal at stake, but those sacrificed along the way.
Gosling perfectly executes the movie’s mission, being as quiet and uncharismatic as it’s possible to be while still maintaining a presence on screen. Chazelle captures him in long silences and close ups of sad eyes. He’s two hundred and forty thousand miles from the everymen who’d have played Armstrong in the past, as cold as space. But this realist take, imagining ordinary (but brave) men with universal problems, thrust into extraordinary and perilous circumstances, feels closer to the truth than any God’s eye, myth-making blockbuster. Not for nothing is space flight largely confined to Armstrong’s perspective – the claustrophobic, fragile interiors of the command module; a lonely and foreboding place that barely insulates one from the void. It’s terrifying, and you’re right there with the astronauts.
Those are the film’s great strengths – restraint, psychological shading and, thanks to some excellent visual effects and an uncanny score, verisimilitude. For others, those same qualities will be as alienating and impersonal as deep space. First Man, then, is no crowd pleaser but it’s a very fine brain-buster; the kind of movie that audience apathy will consign to history, much like our once funded dreams to explore strange new worlds.