Soaring To New Heights
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling and out in cinemas from this Friday, 12 October…
Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler
For Baby Boomers like myself, the Moon Landings were not just an event, but an epochal moment at a time when science was not just our friend but our saviour, and mankind was on the brink of a new phase in its development. Of course the six-year-old that I was, along with nearly everyone watching the grainy footage of several obscure figures walking across a grey, empty expanse, had been imbued with the hope and wonder that inevitably crashed on the rocks of 70s cynicism and disillusionment. I didn’t know, and couldn’t possibly have understood the context, that the Space Mission, for all the cultural backdrop of celebrated fantasies dating back to HG Wells, was of course a key component of the Cold War, along with Fisher versus Spassky, the Hollywood Black List or the Olympic Games.
Oddly enough context is kept to a minimum in this pared-down, verité re-enacting of the NASA space mission leading up to and including that moment in 1969, but that is one of the film’s strengths. Screenwriter Josh Singer and director Damien Chazelle’s portrayal of this saga is one of muted, often banal naturalism, the largely hand-held camera work drawing the viewer inside the personal narrative of each of the key players, notably, as one would expect, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy). Shot in stark, prime colours, the two lead characters occupy an internalised, blank world of suburban anonymity, the shadow of the mission lending a constant undertow of subtle anxiety to every facet of their lives. As Gosling’s Armstrong continues on his upward path to greatness, what is immediately evident is his dispassion (which made him ideal astronaut fodder), his inner world rarely expressed yet very visible.
The action begins in the early 1960s, at a time when the Pentagon was deeply concerned that the Russians were outpacing America in all things space. The early stages of the space program were the manned Mercury and Gemini missions, the latter being where the story begins. The action jumps back and forth between each perilous flight, with its exhaustive preparations, and the sequestered village in which all the would-be astronauts and their families are billeted. What is immediately made clear is that each mission involves the sort of trial and error that can lead to collateral damage, i.e. the death of all the crew on board. This indeed happens to Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and his team on the first test flight for Apollo 1, with one of Neil and Janet’s neighbours having been one of Grissom’s colleagues.
All elements of the equation are given equal screen time – the claustrophobic nightmare of the actual missions, with the impassive crew, unable to reveal their fears or emotions, strapped into a rickety tin can at the behest of their superiors, the clinical meeting rooms, and the picket fence order of the Armstrong’s home. Throughout this, Armstrong remains absurdly stoic, completely ensconced in the military mindset where government interests will always come first. Little is offered in terms of the wider picture, apart from a brief interlude interpolating on the backlash against the programme – the protests, the opinion columns, and a particularly cutting (and apt) song from Gil Scott-Heron. But that is soon behind us as the focus once again narrows, until the movie becomes entirely from Armstrong’s perspective.
The key to the film’s success is its consistency – although the characters are mostly highly introverted (Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stoll, being the only noticeable exception) the arc of the film is with the audience, willing the protagonists to their seemingly elusive goal. Between missions there is the calm of the moonlit sky or the white out of the boardroom, with no sugarcoating, declamations or twee observation. As Apollo 9 approaches, the film doesn’t switch gears, although the audience might.
And whatever valediction there might be in the finale, it isn’t onscreen, as there is no time devoted to ground control by this point, or outside the bubble. By this stage we are at one with Armstrong, the blurry, distant broadcast from aeons past replaced by the precision clarity of the IMAX screen, as almost fifty years are rolled back to that one era-defining scene. The intense build up as NASA’s rocket blasts its nervous way through space gives way to eerie, immersive serenity as the astronauts come full circle, arriving at another hermetic place, only this time light years from home. You may have seen your share of space operas before, but none contain the drama unfolding here, in what is a towering piece of bravura cinema that doesn’t outstay its welcome or attempt to manipulate. Not to mention that disbelief is comprehensively suspended thanks to Gosling and Foy’s measured, unselfish and spot on performances. A rewarding experience.
First Man is out from Friday 12 October in UK and US cinemas.