David Bowie on Space Oddity sings evocatively of “sitting in a tin can”, though I don’t think I’ve ever really understood how that feels until watching Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
The film, directed by LaLaLand creator Damien Chazelle, builds up to the moon landing of 1969 by tracing Armstrong’s NASA career, as well as his grief-stricken family life, forever marked by the death, from cancer, of the Armstrongs’ daughter when just a toddler.
But from the very start, the fragility of existence is brought into sharp focus by the sheer bone-rattling, rivet-straining, metal-burning rudimentariness of early space travel. As a friend of mine put it, you might as well have sent him up there in a Hillman Imp.
We’re so used to flashy sci-fi movies, with their whoosh doors and smooth-action pod-bay doors, it’s very refreshing to look at a retro space film, where everything is analogue, where dials tick round and switches have to be flicked and levers pulled.
Some of the space sequences in this movie are just brilliant, particularly the breathless opening one, with Armstrong in a fighter jet piercing the earth’s atmosphere, and the spectacular closing one leading up to that giant leap for mankind.
It’s back on the ground that the film is less interesting. As you might expect after shooting for the moon, family life is a bit of an anti-climax and Armstrong struggles with this, as does his wife, played by Claire Foy, who does the best she can with the classic ‘astronaut’s wife’ role, which mainly requires her to answer the phone and look anxiously at the telly.
But Chazelle, whose previous film with Gosling was LaLaLand, about the City of Stars, does a decent job of recreating the atmosphere around the space race and the Cold War, the sense of political paranoia around the Apollo missions, which required billions of dollars to be poured into Houston while inner cities were flooded with nothing but heroin. I liked the little touch of Gil Scott Heron’s satirical anthem Whitey on the Moon being sung here at a protest march.
However, Chazelle isn’t out to make destabilising, unpatriotic points here. The moon landing is still a unifying moment in human history and he handles that aspect beautifully. I’d have liked more about the rivalry between the cocksure, charismatic Buzz Aldrin and his rival for the film’s monolithic title , and I certainly wanted more from Gosling as Armstrong: this man came up with one of the most quoted and perfect one-liners in history while actually in the act of creating that moment, and we don’t ever get much hint that he’s capable of such poetry.
Maybe that’s the point. History, for all the money and might one can throw at it, can’t always be forced because ultimately it depends on the spontaneity of the human mind. But it can also be left looking hollow next to man’s limitless ability to dream.