The Apollo moon landing had many beneficial side effects. The almighty effort required in a successful lunar mission provided a growth spurt to existing technology, making for everything from better computers to non-stick frying pans. Those images of the earth stood as a galvanising symbol for the emerging environmentalist movement. But this week comes a less-welcome consequence of that heroic space voyage almost 50 years ago: First Man, and it’s one of the dullest films you’re likely to see this year.
How did the heroic effort to land Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) on the moon inspire such a boring film? The genius behind this peculiar accomplishment belongs to filmmaker Damien Chazelle. He’s the youngish director behind Whiplash and La La Land (for which he became the youngest person to win an Oscar for Best Director), both wildly over-rated movies in my view but box-office successes that have allowed him to work with a bigger budget.
The money shows on screen, and in that regard First Man exerts a certain fascination. This is a meticulous, large-canvas recreation of the US’s Apollo mission, from Nasa’s uncertain, gravity-bound prototypes in the early 1960s to the majestic passage of the Apollo 11 through space that took Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Sea of Tranquillity in 1969.
In the space sequences Chazelle demonstrates a few flashes of poetry. The opening sequence sits us inside Armstrong’s tiny cockpit as he shudders through the earth’s atmosphere as a young test pilot. His pen suddenly rises, free from the pull of gravity, and Armstrong allows himself a moment of wonder, before plucking the pen from its slow rise upward to note down some figures in a clipboard.
Nasa’s space efforts are played out largely as a high-stakes variation on uneasy office politics
It’s a telling moment: onflight statistics take priority over any sense of the extra-terrestrial sublime. Armstrong is a no-nonsense, restrained figure, played by Gosling with a precision that his real-life source, an aeronautical engineer by training, might have appreciated. You suspect such an undemonstrative work ethic was the governing ethos at Nasa.
But Chazelle can’t help tinkering with this view of Armstrong, through his depiction of the astronaut’s family life, with a big (albeit underwritten) role for British actress Claire Foy as his wife Janet. It’s saddening to learn that their young daughter died before Armstrong joined the Apollo mission but Chazelle’s treatment of this tragedy is cloying and sentimental. An icky blend of recent Terrence Malick and The Wonder Years, the drama of Armstrong’s domestic life is a tiresome distraction from his day job as aspiring lunar visitor.
And even with this material Chazelle is dutiful rather than dazzling. Overshadowed by genuine danger – admittedly the death of Armstrong’s colleagues in a fire on Apollo 1 in 1967 is recreated with vivid intensity – Nasa’s space efforts are played out largely as a high-stakes variation on uneasy office politics (with Corey Stall’s loudmouth rogue Buzz Aldrin exposing the ambition hiding behind the martial reserve of Armstrong and his co-workers).
Running at over two hours and 20 minutes, this earnest, dour, Oscar-needy film left me earthbound. Instead of this stodgy epic, I’d recommend the 2007 film In the Shadow of the Moon, a more modest documentary featuring the real-life contributions of the people behind the Apollo missions and remarkable archive footage.
First Man is in cinemas from October 12
All the best Ed! You’ve clearly made a big impression…
“Everyone knows The Big Issue has the best movie reviews… I’m not just saying that, it’s true!” – Desiree Akhavan, director of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance Film Festival, 2018