“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Those words, spoken on September 12th, 1962 by President John F Kennedy, set the goal of who was to be the first man on the Moon, but the space race was already well underway with the Soviet Union having successfully sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit over a year before.
Adapted from James R Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong by The Post‘s Josh Singer, First Man is directed by La La Land‘s Damien Chazelle, reuniting him with the star of that film, Blade Runner 2049‘s Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong in a fractured and abbreviated recreation of the events from the early sixties to July 1969 when the first Moon landing took place.
There have been previous dramatic works covering much of this material, notably The Right Stuff which focused on the earlier Gemini programme and the comprehensive HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, as well as documentaries such as For All Mankind, The Last Man on the Moon and Mission Control, but First Man takes a different approach from these ensemble pieces, focusing almost exclusively on Armstrong.
Despite the potential of this premise, it is a mistake; Armstrong a reserved man whose focus was entirely on the achievement of the goals of the mission to the point where he is depicted as almost a stranger to his wife and children, despite being portrayed by Gosling, normally a reliable and warm presence on the screen even in difficult roles, the film offers little insight into the man and less into his wife Janet.
Played by The Crown‘s Claire Foy, this is not her fault, given little to do by Chazelle other than stay home and mind the children and listen helplessly on the radio relay as her eyes widen to Manga proportions; still, at least she is established as a named character, many of the other noted astronauts of the Gemini and Apollo programmes mere background characters who merit not even an introduction despite their historical importance.
Like Singer’s retelling of the release of the Pentagon Papers relating to the Vietnam War, presenting monumental events without providing an emotional context to vicariously transmit them to the audience are insufficient, and like The Post this Moon shot falls far short of its target, flat, lifeless and far from informative for those who are not already well-versed in the subject, with little explanation given to support the non-specialist viewer.
Sticking with the first-person perspective of the narrative, Chazelle forgoes the magnificence of the majority of the launches and orbital scenes, instead focusing on the flimsiness of the gantry and the cramped size of the capsule, an analogue world of rivets and bolts and solder, the ascent to orbit incomprehensible and traumatic rather than spectacular before giving way to silence above the clouds, the thoughts of a man broken only by the crackle of the radio and the rattle and roar of atmospheric re-entry.
Perhaps a less fictionalised depiction of events and certainly less sentimental than Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, First Man is also a lesser film, the astonishing scientific, technical, physical, intellectual and emotional challenges swallowed rather than spoken, sacrifices borne stoically so the mission can succeed, Chazelle presenting the Apollo project as almost exclusively an endeavour of emotionally stunted white American men; for all that there may be truth in this, it does not make engaging cinema.
Closed to their families and their colleagues with whom they are competing for the ultimate prestige and with no acknowledgement of any other contributors to the space programme, the sole prominent speaking black character an anti-war protester, despite complaints that the actual moment of the raising of the American flag on the Mare Tranquillitatis is not shown the Stars and Stripes is displayed frequently and prominently although the wider political reasons for the space race beyond winning are unexamined.
As the Moon reflects the Sun, having no light of its own, so First Man is a diminished reflection of the single greatest engineering achievement of human history, but like the Moon itself it remains at a frustrating distance, bringing the audience no closer to the individuals, families, teams and organisations whose collective skills and sacrifice made it possible; they deserve better than this myopic disappointment.
First Man is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX