Skip to main content

We need to fail. We need to fail down here so we don't fail up there.

First Man
(2018)

I was ambivalent about the need for First Man. The space race movie had already been made in The Right Stuff, and couldn’t possibly be bettered, and the “tribulations in space” movie had been one of the better Ron Howard pictures (still only solid, rather than great, though). Was another Hollywood production promulgating the official history of NASA needed? Probably not, as there's nothing very new here on that score, but what impresses about First Man is rather the perversely unglorifying approach it takes – which isn't to say it’s anything other than in awe of the risks taken by the risk takers – resulting in a piece that's almost the opposite of Philip Kaufman's film in scope, scale and design, despite sharing some of its iconography; it could even be seen as an anti-epic.


Such a viewpoint isn't about the feats featured, since both Damien Chazelle and Kaufman take pains to emphasise the death-defying career choice of these fledgling astronauts in what are essentially coffins strapped onto rockets (or boys' balsa wood model kits, as Claire Foy's Janet Armstrong suggests at one point, during a not-unmotivated or unreasonable tirade against the absurdity of the enterprise). Rather, it's about the man at the centre of them. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is the very definition of interior, buttoned-down and self-controlled. Even by Gosling's career standards, this is a doozy for that impassive gaze. And then some. What's going on in Armstrong's head? Is he unreadable, a smorgasbord of unexpressed emotions? I didn't find this uncommunicative pose distancing, perhaps because I never got the sense from Gosling's performance that Armstrong was unfeeling or lacking in emotional range; rather, his comfort zone was to respond with precision and collectedness or not all. Fine for his work, problematic when it came to retreating from the stresses of dealing with his domestic world. 


Armstrong is implacable and unmoved as is for the much of the time; he'll rather immediately leave the family home than have a conversation with his wife over what happened at work that day, which just happened to be a near fatality for him, and has to be duly screamed at before he will sit the kids down and tell them he may not be coming back from the Moon, which amusingly takes on something closer to the form of reporters quizzing him at a press conference. In direct contrast, Janet is in a constant struggle to remain composed. As much as Gosling adopts Armstrong's inscrutability, Foy wears Janet's strain all over her face. It's a remarkable performance, and the sympathy is with her throughout. 


I'm not sure how authentic the trauma of the loss of daughter Karen was to Armstrong's ongoing motivation; I've seen it suggested it had little bearing on his devotion to his work, although the scene in which he shuts down a question probing precisely that point is great writing and acting; "I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect". Regardless, it's entirely believable that the man we see here would have chosen never to discuss the subject, and when broached, that he'd have retreated into his own inaccessible pain. That said, it's still a pat Hollywood arc as presented, the epic journey grounded in personal catharsis as Armstrong throws her bracelet onto the lunar surface (of which, there's no evidence, but the author of the biography on which this is based, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R Hansen, nursed it as a pet theory). 


Happier familial scenes find the director apparently at a loss over how to proceed, so falling back on referencing others; the autumnal, lens-flared, handheld of domestic bliss has apparently fallen straight out of The Tree of Life. When it comes to the world of men doing manly things, Chazelle has no such caution; yes, the visual cues in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle test remind one of Sam Shepard's Chuck Yaeger staggering out of the desert following a crash in The Right Stuff, yet it doesn’t feel an unearned or invalid lift.


Chazelle's story essentially picks up where The Right Stuff left off with the Mercury programme, the common astronaut to both movies being Gus Grissom (there played by the eminent Fred Ward, here by Shea Whigham), about whom there are even conspiracy theories (the idea that he his death was actually murder, a consequence of his criticism of the Apollo programme; he didn't believe there was much chance of it making the Moon on schedule). We also have common tropes to both movies; the team learning the ropes/worrying about the potentialities; the wives' lives; the mission going wrong and subsequent investigation (in The Right Stuff there's the hatch of the Liberty Bell 7 blowing, resulting in its loss). 


But there's no progressive sense of achievement or triumphalism to First Man. Janet isn't merely the obediently supporting wife, and the space flights aren't portrayed as stunning, poetic experiences, bar the odd snatched moment. Armstrong is engrossed in the work rather than family, but there's no victory in that, in obvious terms of satisfaction, which rather separates the picture from the sacrifice = achievement formula of Whiplash and La La Land. There, the ends justify the means as long as the ends are success; First Man is much more equivocal. Armstrong's motivation is never voiced as such. He's driven but not for outwardly-expressed motives, not for fame, not for the glory of being the first, or for lasting veneration. On that level at least, the movie represents a more mature, reflective piece of work for Chazelle.


Simply in terms of premise, Chazelle has set himself a very different task, and an uphill challenge; the movie is all in Neil's head – or in Janet's, who is unable to get into his head. This reticence in relation to one giant leap, the human achievement, seems to line up with the "Who is all this for?" of Gil Scott-Heron's Whitey on the Moon and the avoidance of focussing on the American flag. In the case of the latter, really, in context of the movie, it would have been very odd if it had, suggesting the complaints came from those who hadn't watched the film and had no clue about the context of the content. One might further infer apathy from the muted tone, towards an accomplishment where scepticism over its veracity simply won't go away, and indeed grows, the longer return visits are off the agenda (and in the Internet age, it's a debate in which those on either side of the lunar fence dig their heels in ever more voraciously).


One thing is abundantly clear from First Man; when he's got a clear idea about tackling a scene, Chazelle is an astonishingly proficient filmmaker. Perhaps the biggest problem here is that the picture peaks with the Gemini 8 mission to dock with the orbiting Agena target vehicle. It's a masterpiece of a sequence, utterly compelling even when you can't really get a fix on what is going on (so reflecting the astronauts' own experiences). It also perhaps gives us the clearest indication of how Armstrong ticks, as he tersely informs co-pilot David Scott (Christopher Abbot) that he hasn't got time for his distractions, his concentration focussed on the calculations necessary to adjust their trajectory for docking.


After this comes the fire that kills the Apollo 1 crew, again depicted with consummate diligence. I was less persuaded by the backend of the picture, however; even the scene in which Neil talks to his kids felt like a bit of a fudge (I mean, the chances he wouldn’t come back were fairly high on his previous space mission, surely). And there's little tension in the flight itself; even the lunar landing, avoiding a crater, is fairly sedate. It's almost as if, like the concentration on the flag point, the movie's about Armstrong getting there, rather than being there. Maybe not even that. If nothing else, it does, however, prove you can make a convincing Moon landing in a TV studio (or in a quarry, as the case may be). The other takeaway from this sequence is Justin Hurwitz's beautiful piece of scoring; it's curious that he's only worked with Chazelle thus far, as he must surely be in demand.


There’s another area where First Man distinguishes itself from The Right Stuff; Armstrong's fellow astronauts barely get a look in. Jason Clarke as Ed White has the most screen time, but even then, it's mostly about reflecting Neil. There are good performances from Ciarán Hinds and Kyle Chandler, but they simply aren't on screen long enough to make much of an impression. Pablo Schreiber presumably came on board on the proviso he got the lead in the sequel. Patrick Fugit fares better, but his fellow once-child-actor actor Lukas Haas has the short straw of the Apollo 11 astronauts as Ed Mitchell. Corey Stoll makes just the impact needed as Buzz Aldrin, though, just around long enough to establish that Armstrong thinks he's a dick (again, this makes an effective contrast with the camaraderie of the Kaufman film). 


While it will probably get a Best Picture nom, I don't think First Man is seriously going to trouble the Academy come Oscar night. As an officially stamped and approved space race recreation, it's pretty unimpeachable, but ironically on that score, it couldn't exactly be called a propaganda tool for NASA; it's too anti-mythologising. The last thing they'd want is a Moon movie in which the whole purpose is to underwhelm, in which walking on the Moon doesn't really seem like all that. To that end, I almost think Chazelle could have gone further. What if he hadn't even showed Armstrong getting there, and just had the whole thing playing on his face? His interview for the Gemini programme could have replayed, where he detours into a fascinating ramble about the philosophical importance of going into space being more important than mere exploration, and how it "allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago".



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984)
If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisions may be vi…