First Man

 

starstarstarhalf

 


Damien Chazelle’s biography of Neil Armstrong is an impressive work of cinema even if it lacks a human centre.

   

First Man

Space craft: Lukas Haas and Ryan Gosling 

 

He is arguably one of the most significant figures in history, but few actually know much about Neil Armstrong – besides, that is, his immortal words, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We do know that he looks nothing like Ryan Gosling, although he does bear a passing resemblance to the actor Patrick Fugit, who plays his fellow astronaut Elliot See in the film. But, hey, Ryan Gosling is the bigger star and has already forged a creative shorthand with the film’s director, Damien Chazelle, with whom he worked on the Oscar-winning La La Land.

 

As a piece of cinema, Chazelle’s latest enterprise is near faultless. The youngest ever recipient of an Academy Award for best director, Chazelle guides his new narrative effortlessly and movingly to its inevitable conclusion, while relishing the ballistic bumps along the way. And one braces oneself for that famous line, much as one might a new actor’s interpretation of “To be or not to be” in Hamlet. In the event, the moment is almost anticlimactic and, coming out of the visor of Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong, somewhat uncharacteristic. He is portrayed as a man of few words, a laconic, distant figure who, when he does say something, makes it count. Following yet another fatality during a test flight, he notes solemnly, “we need to fail down here so that we don’t fail up there.” More profoundly, he observes, “space exploration changes your perception. It allows us to see things that we should have seen a long time ago.” However, the real emotional ballast is supplied by Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, the astronaut’s wife. She is the earth to his lightning rod. Like the supportive wife of Robin Cavendish in Andy Serkis' Breathe (2017), Foy gives First Man its recognisable human gravity.

 

In spite of its title, the film is more a chronology of the Gemini and Apollo countdown and the scenes in space are truly remarkable. With so many precedents looming before him, Chazelle has avoided all the clichés of the genre and has created an entirely realistic milieu in which the most dramatic moments are almost thrown away. Full marks, too, to Chazelle’s former college roommate, Justin Hurwitz, who provides one of the year’s finest and most original scores. For once, Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ is nowhere to be heard. Even so, the film is not without its longueurs and its human centre abandoned in favour of the scientific agenda. Chazelle almost seems to be playing against the inherent drama of his material, while the eponymous man remains a shadow behind the legend. We know that Armstrong never recovered from the death of his two-year-old daughter, Karen, and that he was fond of a show tune, but there’s little else to colour in the icon. As a biography, then, it is frequently momentous, albeit lacking in real human excitement.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d'Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith.

 

Dir Damien Chazelle, Pro Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner and Damien Chazelle, Ex Pro Steven Spielberg and Josh Singer, Screenplay Josh Singer, from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, Ph Linus Sandgren, Pro Des Nathan Crowley, Ed Tom Cross, Music Justin Hurwitz, Costumes Mary Zophres.

 

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures/Temple Hill Entertainment/Perfect World Pictures-Universal Pictures

141 mins. 2018. USA. Rel: 12 October 2018. Cert. 12A.