Wednesday 16 October 2019

First Man review: 'Damien Chazelle's film brilliantly charts the triumphs and tragedies of going to the moon'

5 stars

Ryan Gosling as the tightly wound Neil Armstrong in First Man
Ryan Gosling as the tightly wound Neil Armstrong in First Man
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Gore Vidal, who usually knew what he was talking about, often said that his old friend John F Kennedy was terrific company, but a poor president. Still, he gave great speeches, and on September 12, 1962, he delivered one that arguably changed the entire course of human history.

Speaking to a hushed crowd of 40,000 Texans at the Rice University football field in Dallas, Kennedy sought to persuade the American people to back the costly Nasa space programme. Space was a fresh frontier, a "new sea" that "must be won and used for the progress of all people". "We choose to go to the Moon!" he declared. "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…"

Stirring stuff, no doubt, but US prestige was at stake. The Russians had been firing dogs and men into orbit, and America was not about to be upstaged by its detested totalitarian rival. Federal money rained into the coffers of Nasa, who assembled a team of crack scientists and pilots and began rushing to complete the impossible task of landing men on the Moon.

Damien Chazelle's First Man tells this story through the prism of Neil Armstrong, the quiet, reserved, almost unknowable astronaut who would personally fulfil JFK's lunar dream. Other astronauts would run for office, and Buzz Aldrin (who's unflatteringly portrayed here by Corey Stoll) would end up waltzing about on Dancing With The Stars, but Armstrong retreated from the public gaze in later years, and was not keen on sharing his extraterrestrial experiences. Perhaps they were unshareable. Unshareable too, maybe, was the incalculable grief he and his first wife Janet (played here by Claire Foy) suffered following a tragic family incident.

Claire Foy in First Man
Claire Foy in First Man

This happens early in First Man, as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is risking life and limb careering through the upper atmosphere in prototype jets. To Janet's dismay, he becomes even more distant after being accepted to Nasa.

The astronauts live close to each other and become a tight-knit community. Cast about in zero gravity machines, and subjected to nauseating physical tests, they bond cheerfully as rocket tests lead to manned space missions. But they all have black suits at the ready because this is a high risk business. "We need to fail down here so we don't fail up there," says Armstrong as the mission approaches.

And on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, failure "up there" seems a distinct likelihood. Seen up close, the rocket looks like it's been woven together with spit and tinfoil, but they squeeze themselves into the tiny cabin and roar off into space to fulfil their date with destiny.

WATCH: Claire Foy talks playing Neil Armstrong's wife in First Man and addresses American flag controversy

The space programme was not universally popular, and in First Man we see angry demonstrators wondering why federal money is not being put to better use. Perhaps our descendants may see it differently should space travel offer humanity a precious life-line.

The Apollo 11 mission forms the climax of Chazelle's film, which compellingly recreates the Moon landing from up close.

WATCH: Olivia Hamilton talks working with new husband and director Damien Chazelle on First Man

The director brilliantly uses sound to intensify the drama of his stories, and never more so than here. Rocket engines roar deafeningly to produce the power necessary to drive Apollo 11 clear of the Earth, but up in space, once those engines wane, the silence is absolutely deafening. Gosling is very good as the taciturn and tightly-wound Armstrong, Foy makes the most of an underwritten role as his wife, and Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler excel in supporting roles. First Man is a dazzling visual spectacle, but the Moon itself seems a hollow prize, grey and empty, a terrifying place for any human being to contemplate.

Some critics have suggested it might have been a better idea to place the Moon landings in the middle of the film, and explore the psychological consequences for Armstrong and his comrades in the months, years and decades afterwards.

But this is a feeble-minded notion because Chazelle beautifully sums up the gulf that now separates Armstrong from his wife when they meet for the first time after the mission. He's in quarantine, and when they hold their palms up on either side of the glass that separates them, real communication no longer seems possible.

First Man (12A 141mins)

Films coming soon...

Halloween (Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Will Patton, Nick Castle);

Dogman (Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce);

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ken Jeong, Chris Parnell, Madison Iseman); The Lonely Battle Of Thomas Reid.

Irish Independent

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