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The reluctant space hero

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Damien Chazelle’s First Man isn’t about the Moon landing. It’s really about the loneliness and grief of astronaut Neil Armstrong

REBUFFING the naysayers, Thomas Edison alleged that he had not, in fact, failed “1,000 times” in his quest for electric light – rather, his bulb was merely “an invention with 1,000 steps”. It’s worth bearing this in mind when watching First Man, which recasts one of the 20th century’s less apparently ambiguous success stories (that is, the Moon landing of 1969) as an against-the-odds endurance yarn awash with derring-do, nuts-and-bolts detail and 11th-hour peril. Hollywood golden boy Damien Chazelle looks well-placed to direct, for he is a talent who specialises in teasing the epic from the intimate – see Whiplash, which turned a cautionary tale of collegiate abuse into a blistering battle-of-the-minds thriller or the Oscar-baiting La La Land, which realised its mundane commentary on modern relationship woes with the aid of shameless pizzazz and escapist musical gloss. Of course, this outing demanded a reversal of the established formula; its protagonist, Neil Armstrong, has been relegated to the realms of myth in the decades since Apollo 11, his name a byword for genuine human achievement and for a lost American optimism. Indeed, First Man’s harking back to the latter virtue feels delightfully subversive in this age of Western malaise, just as 2016’s La La Land shone and scandalised with its daring simplicity, defiant in the face of Trump’s imminent inauguration.

Who should dare rise to the occasion in capturing Armstrong’s tenacious essence? Astory of this galactic stature invited much in the way of revisionism and reinterpretation – Chazelle could have given us the Armstrong of legend, the family man, the instinctive ascetic whose modesty compelled him to shun an enthralled media in the aftermath of his feat. Ryan Gosling instead opts for something of a subtler order with a pleasantly deconstructive portrait of a military vet with one foot in the grave and another in a household he’s increasingly estranged from. Where, we might wonder, do the dreams of space travel end and the ‘real’ life begin? The screenplay allows us no easy answers, and Gosling’s characteristic iciness renders him a natural fit for the role – Neil’s dealings with the Armstrong clan are conducted with the same sub-zero detachment he exhibits ‘in the field’, straining his relationship with his long-suffering wife Jan (Claire Foy). She is determined to bring him both literally and figuratively back to Earth, warning him that their children are at loss as to the potential for catastrophe.
With no hint of irony, Neil proceeds to subject the tots to the living-room equivalent of a NASA press release.

As to the mission itself, Chazelle leaves us in doubt: this could have ended in disaster. Everyone remembers the planting of the flag at Tranquility Base, but relatively few remember the three men who died aboard Apollo 1 two years prior, a tragedy recounted here in traumatic detail. Even fewer remember the genii behind the scenes, the “third-of-a-million” (in Armstrong’s own words) people who struggled through misstep-after-disaster to get an American on the Moon; they are memorialised here by Kyle Chandler’s project manager, but this remains, for the most part, an ultra-focused character study. The film’s aesthetic has an iconoclastic quality about it – the tech looks haggard even by 1969 standards, in stark contrast to the Trekkie sheen popular memory has assigned the landings. While it owes more to Touching the Void than Apollo 13 in terms of its hardnosed commitment to docudrama authenticity (Armstrong’s family were at hand to supervise the production), First Man’s effect is positively old-school, a story of rattled astronauts in tinpot craft that nevertheless brims with contemporary relevance.

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