Neil Armstrong was the first man to step onto our moon, on July 20, 1969, to be exact. He’s also the first man to screw up his historic lines as he stepped onto the moon.
Armstrong is of Scottish descent. A taciturn American-Scot garbled his lines when the moment mattered. “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – means the same thing, a tautology. It ought to have been, “One small step for a man”.
In any event, using ‘mankind’ today would have gotten Armstrong a torrent of Twitter abuse from the Harpy lobby.
Scottish? The clue is in the name. His ancestors were from the Border country. Not only have Scots shaped the modern world, we conquered the moon too. How much good that has done humankind since is highly questionable. We were told spending trillions of dollars to get there, rather than on America’s poor, gave us Teflon pots and pans but that was a lie. Nevertheless, believing that fake news, there must be a Tea Party Hillbilly somewhere in the backwoods scouring his Teflon frying pan in a stream thinking, hell, I may be shit poor but I got me the best pan in the world.
The director of this pedestrian plot is the very same who gave us a ramble through the genre of Hollywood musicals, Damien Chazelle. He’s Hollywood’s current wunderkind.
I must be among the few who disliked La La Land, (2016) intensely. It pandered to today’s callous youth by giving them Mr and Mrs Winsome Ordinary in lots of ordinary situations, doing terribly ordinary things, and having ordinary emotions in what should have been an uplifting, zing along, sing-along, toe-tapping musical.
That both main stars, Gosling again plus Emma Stone, could barely sing or dance – another indication of their ordinariness, might have had something to do with my disappointment. The film won five Academy Awards. Callow youth loved it. There’s no accounting for public taste.
And yet, and yet, there’s no doubting the technical wizardry on display in First Man. Sadly, on a purely emotional level, it’s as cold as the dark side of the moon.
The film is well over two hours long, long enough, you’d think, to leave some indelible moment to talk about. I felt barely able to keep a scene or a line of dialogue in my head so boring was the journey of Armstrong depicted.
What it did teach me is how much junk rockets were that took those sweaty monosyllabic men into the history books. Science fiction films have us used to arrays of illuminated buttons, digital everything, and hanging in-the-air maps and holograms. What a revelation to see the reality of NASA’s interiors, badly riveted tin cans with ancient toggle switches, hanging wire looms, and metal carapaces that creaked and groaned like my old car. Still, the film looks great thanks to the cinematography of Linus Sandgren. Visual images glide by with a slickness not mirrored by the rocketry.
The radical notion behind First Man is actually quite uncomplicated: tell the story of mankind’s boldest adventure thus far, the Apollo 11 mission that reached the moon nearly a half-century ago, but tell it through a non-communicative, spotlight-shy, curmudgeonly Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the lunar surface. Pay close attention to this man’s state of mind and spirit, as well all the stuff that went into making the mission a great success – but miss out any politics that went with it.
Forget mystery or poetry; this is a paean to strong silent men doing strong silent tasks. The most political it gets is when we hear Gil Scott-Heron lyric, “I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon.” Mind you, hearing Kennedy’s oration to make America great again by beating the Russians to the moon shows us how utterly shallow he could be. His reasoning hasn’t lasted the test of time.
The script, written by Josh Singer and based on James R. Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” can’t get inside Armstrong’s head though it tries hard. There are moments I found genuinely affecting. I blubbed a little, taking care those sitting next to me didn’t see my emotion, but none issued from Armstrong’s relationship with his daughter or his wife. The human element is lacking from A to Z.
Played by an as-ever emotionally restrained Ryan Gosling, doing his Steve McQueen number, Gosling attempts to show us Armstrong’s longings. He lost a daughter to a brain tumour in the early 1960s. That incident frames the story, as Armstrong hallucinates visions of his daughter, permanently haunted by her death. It’s a cheap psychological trope. By all accounts, Armstrong was a complicated person, super-cool under stress, the reason he was chosen to captain the journey. And he did have a sense of humour which the director never seems to let loose.
As far as I’ve read in past accounts, Armstrong was riven by Presbyterian puritanism, the work ethic, and honesty versus vanity. The Scot was in his DNA. I’m pretty certain he made love in the dark and never took off his socks.
Claire Foy gets the anxious wife role. She bites her lip, bites her nails, bites back at Armstrong when he annoys the hell out of her, but refrains from biting the carpet. In the manner of so many 1960’s wives, Janet is fully domesticated, stuck at home worrying about her hubby. Foy does the best she can with cliché. In compensation she’s almost on screen as often as Gosling. The rest is a cast of thousands, and a thousand more extras. Chazelle has been well and truly indulged by his studio bosses.
Of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts, many of whom gave their lives to the various missions that led to the moon landing – the one tense, dramatic scene in the entire film – Corey Stall’s blunt, brutish Buzz Aldrin makes the most lasting impression.
To make up for a generally uneventful series of scenarios, Chazelle relies on masses of imagery whipped past us in quick succession. Inside the space rocket he uses hand-held cameras to give us the impression of galactic-speed movement. His other technique is to concentrate on close ups of everything, especially Gosling’s eyes as he stares at the sky, at the moon, at his co-astronauts, at his wife, at images of his dead daughter, at the wall, at a tree, et all, but he can’t stare inside his head.
The film suffers from being last in line behind all the outer space films that went before it, most notably the suspenseful Gravity (2013). First Man never quite connects at a gut level in the same way La La Land missed any number of heartbeats.
For a story that shoots for the moon and stars, it remains resolutely grounded. This film is directed by a non-intellectual trying to make a simple-minded film about a reticent and complex man who was a university professor as well as a test pilot. What we get barely rises above sophisticated soap.
- Star Rating: Three stars
- Cast: Ryan Gosling, Clare Foy, Jason Clarke,
- Director: Damien Chazelle
- Writer: Josh Singer, based on the book by James Hansen
- Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
- Composer: Justin Hurwitz
- Duration: 2 hours 21 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?