Several film generations have passed since The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s Tom Wolfe-derived account of the Mercury program … this is inevitably a sequel, though only Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) really carry over, and the tone of Damien Chazelle’s biopic moves away from satire, Americana and multi-character drama to focus on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Recently, a friend told me he was appalled that a young person he’d met thought Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon – but it’s almost understandable, in that N. Armstrong seemed to set out to be invisible. He got the gig because he was even-tempered, in tight control of his emotions even under extreme circumstances (the death in infancy of his daughter), and not given to the sort of dramatic loose cannon outbursts we tend to want in our movie heroes. Most biopics are about rule-breakers, but Armstrong got to the point where he became one of the most significant people in history by going with the program.
Chazelle has the resources to recreate large-scale events, but closes in almost as if he were making a dogme film … the space flights (Apollo 11 was Armstrong’s second mission) are seen mostly from the astronaut’s POV, stressing the clanking, cramped, clunky ricketiness of the capsules stuck on top of large quantities of explosive liquid. The deaths of three astronauts in a firing test are conveyed in a terrifying, understated sequence – with a tactful pull out to show a hatch denting as a sparking wire triggers an explosion. Apollo 11, the made-for-TV version of this story, made the spikier, more difficult Buzz Aldrin – whose Dad thought he was a loser because he got bumped to being the second man on the moon – into the protagonist, and this casts Corey Stoll as a wiser-ass ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’ kind of guy to give some contrast, but doesn’t invent or dwell on any conflicts among the crew. We have a sense of the strain the mission puts on Armstrong’s family, and a key moment finds his wife Janet (Claire Foy) forcing him to find time to say goodbye to their children before the flight … to at least address the possibility that he might not come back.
One of those only-in-Trumpmerica controversies has been a whipped up critique of the film that it’s not patriotic enough – Chazelle makes little of the flag-planting, though that might be as much to do with wanting to minimise Richard Nixon’s involvement (he made a very long speech) in order to focus on the men on the moon. An undercurrent, of course, acknowledges that there was a dissenting minority opinion on the endeavour, with Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) reciting his bitter, powerful poem ‘Whitey’s on the Moon’ in an unsettling montage. The moon landing may be the greatest 20th century achievement of squares – of buttoned-down folk who worked out sums on paper, had barbeques at the weekend, endured privations without complaint, and got surprisingly little thanks for it. It’s taken fifty years for this biopic to appear – well after movies about drug barons, music promoters, crooked politicians, self-destructive rock stars and Larry Flynt.
First Man has a dreamlike, elliptical Malicky narrative – that Louis Armstrong woman would have to spend a lot of time online filling in the historical gaps if she wanted to understand what was happening and even who was who – but is steeped in NASA history, in LEM and EVA, launch-pad and touchdown … and its moon scenes are brief, perfect and almost hallucinations, as if to feed another segment of conspiracy lunatic. Though Gosling’s Armstrong – withdrawn and understated even by his standards – is the centre, this offers a supporting cast that shows the American cinema can still deploy character actors to match Kaufman’s crew … Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Ciaran Hinds, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas (as Mike Collins, displaying a textbook case of separation anxiety in a sweet, funny moment), Olivia Hamilton, Cory Michael Smith.