IT IS NEVER the story itself; it’s how you tell it that makes a tale sing. Damien Chazelle’s film First Man, which celebrates the story of Neil Armstrong – the world’s first man on the moon – fits this bill perfectly. It’s the tale of not only a scientific and political conquest, during the Cold War, but it’s about adventure and an ordinary family. And this conflation of values makes it one of those grand stories beautifully told that warms the cockles of everyone’s heart.
You know the story – you may have lived through it, you may have read of it in history books or understand it through popular cliché. Above all, you know how the Space Race ends in July of 1969, and this is why it becomes rich entertainment: There are effectively no unknowns here. There are enormous climaxes in the technicality of travelling to outer space with gauges on machines that you do not understand. What you do understand about these gauges is the scariness when the pressure valves go rogue and how terrifying it is when things catch fire.
You also understand what it is to be an ordinary person who suffers loss and who veers from the public eye. With an extraordinarily fine interpretation of Neil Armstrong by Ryan Gosling, the tale is not only about landing on the moon. It’s about a husband and a father. It’s about how the slightest trigger can take a bereaved person right back to the bedside of his beloved late person and how the sadness is not out there on his sleeve, but always in there, in his heart. Armstrong lost his toddler, Karen, in 1962.
First Man is one of those movies predicated on a story of such great victory that it’s almost a winner before you’ve seen it. However, Chazelle ramps it up further, with the casting of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Janet. This extremely fine performer lends a sense of supreme ordinariness to the role, offering dignified and real insight into how the family’s rocket into fame affected each of them. The texture of 1960s America is achieved with utter perfection, down to the colour filters in the swimming pool scenes and the bold screen-printed frocks of the wives.
When you watch this film, you may think of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel The Right Stuff, and the eponymous film made by Phillip Kaufmann premised on it, four years later. You might think of David Bowie’s poetic reflection on the breathtaking momentousness of space in his song Space Oddity of 1969. And you would not be misguided in either direction. First Man offers palpable and well-constructed insight into this grand and heroic story. But more than that, it is balanced and thoughtful and brings in the slam protest poetry of Gil Scott-Heron: Whitey on the Moon that highlighted popular opinion of the elitist extravagance of moon colonialism.
The film is not without its flaws however, or its provocative jibes. There’s a lot of camera shake in the filming of the piece. While it’s obvious in the outer space foray and necessary as such, there’s camera shake when we’ve all got our feet back on the ground and are doing domesticity, and that’s a little distracting. Buzz Aldrin, one of the original Apollo 11 pilots also reportedly complained about the absence of US flag planting in the film which waters down its nationalistic flavour.
But these are things you get over as the grand narrative is presented to you with an earnest momentum and a muscularity that gives cliché a place and enables you to understand the true message of hope that stories like this offer, unsugared and direct. In short, it’s completely gorgeous and ticks all those boxes of great entertainment like A Star is Born does.
- First Man is directed by Damien Chazelle and features a cast headed by Christopher Abbott, Jamie Anne Allman, Andrew Armstrong, Mark Armstrong, Timothy Batten, Skyler Bible, Connor Blodgett, Nelson Bonilla, Philip Boyd, Leon Bridges, Callie Brown, Myra Brown, Andrew Buckman, Kevin Buttimer, Charles Carroll, Kyle Chandler, Anna Chazelle, Jason Clarke, Steve Coulter, Brian d’Arcy James, Ethan Embry, JD Evermore, Ryan Clay Forbes, Claire Foy, Patrick Fugit, Aurelien Gaya, Matthew Glave, Ryan Gosling, Edmund Grant, Choppy Guillotte, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Tim Harper, Robert Hatch, Braydyn Nash Helms, Ronald Hicks, Ciarán Hinds, Andrea Maria Hintermaier, Rodney J. Hobbs, Helen S. Jackson, Kevin Johnson, Lawrence Jonasson, Mark Kelly, Michael Lee Kimel, Mark Kirkman, Brad Kitchen, Irina Labouz, William Gregory Lee, Dustin Lewis, Damian Lovello, Brian Mahoney, Brian David McCay, Ambrit Millhouse, Tess Oakland, Tim Olcott, Ben Owen, Anthony Paolucci, Joshua Powell, Willie Repoley, Kermit Rolison, Tyner Rushing, Mark Schlichting, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Sgubin, Brady Smith, Claire Smith, Cory Michael Smith, Andrew Stahl, Lucy Stafford, Jim Stearns, Corey Stoll, Thomas Clay Strickland, Kris Swanberg, William G. Tomek, Todd Truley, Stephanie Turner, Gavin Warren, Donald Watkins, John David Whalen, Shea Whigham, James H. Williams, Luke Winters and Mark Yurgil. It is written by Josh Singer, based on the eponymous book by James R. Hansen. Produced by Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey and Isaac Klausner, it features creative input by Justin Hurwitz (music), Linus Sandgren (cinematography), Tom Cross (editing), Francine Maisler (casting), Nathan Crowley (production design) and Mary Zophres (costumes). Release date in South Africa, under Ster Kinekor, Cinema Nouveau: October 26 2018.