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Walking On The Moon: First Man Reviewed
Wyndham Hacket Pain , October 12th, 2018 10:12

In Damien Chazelle's new film starring Ryan Gosling, Wyndham Hackett Pain finds yesterday's futures looking increasingly passé

Considering the number of films that have depicted voyages to space it is surprising that it has taken so long for the Apollo 11 mission to be dramatised. Neil Armstrong’s achievement may be renowned across the world but it has been a long journey to bring his iconic feats to the screen. Clint Eastwood originally bought the rights to James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong back in the early 2000s but he struggled to move the project into development. It wasn’t until 2016 that Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle was brought on board and two years later First Man is finally being released.

The film opens in 1961, a year before President Kennedy uttered his famous declaration that the American flag would be planted on the moon. Neil Armstrong is working as a pilot and engineer and the main focus in his life is his daughter who is undergoing cancer treatment. It is a difficult experience for him and his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Her death appears to haunt him throughout the rest of the film.

Looking for a new start, Armstrong applies to NASA’s space programme and is accepted to be one of their astronauts. For a long time it is unclear who will be chosen to lead the mission to the moon and each candidate gets their chance to travel to space. At one point it looks like Ed White (Jason Clarke) will have the opportunity to be the first person to step foot on the moon, but after he is killed in a pre-flight check it becomes clear that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) will man the mission.

The dramatic flights are contrasted by more intimate scenes focusing on Armstrong’s relationship with his family and the other astronauts. Armstrong is presented as a fairly introverted and withdrawn character. He rarely speaks about the death of his daughter, not even to his wife. In many ways he is both a product of his time, one where men did not express their feelings or emotions, and the characteristics needed to complete such a mission. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is a very different character and is much more outspoken and charismatic. It would have been interesting if Armstrong and Aldrin had shared more screen time and if there was more of a chance to compare their approaches to the voyage.

There is a super 8 and home movie feel to the cinematography that contains a lot of close ups and shaky footage. At its best the camerawork gives the film an intimate feel and as the shuttle sets off you almost feel as if you are in the cockpit. The launch sequence is especially immersive and manages to create a sense of tension and excitement despite our knowledge that the trip is successful. At other times the abundance of close ups and the amateurish feel of the footage can make the film feel claustrophobic and a little alienating. The shots do give a sense of the pressure Armstrong must have been under but they make it difficult to contextualise his experiences. Rarely is the vastness of space conveyed and it means that it is difficult to truly appreciate Armstrong’s achievements.

Where Stanley Kubrick went to space with the evolution of man and human consciousness on his mind, it is less clear what Chazelle is trying to explore. Apart from a few lines from astronaut Ed White about how exploration is a part of human nature there is little in the way of thematic consideration. It is a philosophy that doesn’t expand much beyond the sentiment that man travels to the moon because it is in our blood to do so.

Even the film’s central figure remains a bit unexplored. Aside from a couple of moments when he mentions how space travel will broaden our perspective, Armstrong is quiet about his reasoning for wanting to step foot on the moon. For the most part his ambitions remain private and he focuses on whatever job is at hand. While these are admirable character traits it does make it hard to understand Armstrong’s motives and feelings before and during the mission. Rarely do we see inside his head and it is difficult to come away with anything other than broad notions of what he was like and how he viewed the world.

This is not to say that Gosling is poor in the central role – on the contrary I enjoyed the understated determination he brought to First Man – but that the film around him doesn’t do enough to allow the viewer to understand Armstrong’s experiences. Even after watching the film, Armstrong remains a distant figure, separated by his otherworldly achievements and unique skillset. It is true that Armstrong was a famously private person who rarely made public appearances in the years that followed his voyage, but it is the job of the researchers and screenwriters to look beyond his reserved exterior and delve into the man underneath.

While there are some beautiful shots within First Man, the film does not have the intergalactic grandeur of Interstellar or even the recent Star Wars films. Chazelle choices to mostly stay within reach of the shuttle and even when they land on the moon Armstrong and Aldrin stay within its vicinity. He is of course limited by the material at hand and the events of the Apollo 11 mission but Chazelle never recaptures the magic that made the world stop and watch as Armstrong dismounted the ship.

In 1969 more than 500 million people watched the moon landing but today’s astronauts are virtually anonymous. Coverage of NASA and space expeditions has all but vanished and people’s attention has moved elsewhere. It does make me wonder if science fiction has moved beyond the space race and left it looking a little tame in comparison. The prospect of landing on the moon can’t compete with the fanciful galaxies that have taken over the screen. Generations of human beings dreamt of travelling to the moon, while today such feats are housed in history books and we can be found imagining the worlds beyond.

First Man, directed by Damian Chazelle is in UK cinemas now