Damien Chazelle had me walking on air with the opening slot of Venice two years ago, when La La Land made its bow.
The director is back in the same position now, back with Ryan Gosling, too, with First Man, a film about Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon.
It starts magnificently, with a bravura sequence of Armstrong flying into space in something little more than a jet fighter plane and then “bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere” as he tries to re-enter. It’s bone-shaking stuff, absolutely heart-pounding to watch and you marvel at the analogue simplicity of it all, the tin can, hurtling up and then down.
In terms of excitement and economy of direction, the film never quite recovers from the awesome excellence of this opener. Starting in 1961, it counts down, swiftly at first (this is a space ‘race’, after all), then slightly dragging, to the famous date in 1969.
Armstrong’s family life is marked by the tragic loss of a little daughter, but they move to Houston (wife Janet is played by Clare Foy, in a slightly thankless role, all worried looks and phone calls) when he’s recruited for project Gemini – pronounce Gem-ee-Nee for some reason – and then graduating to the Apollo mission.
There’s some bristling between Gosling’s Neil and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) but we don’t learn much about them. Nor do we really get to know Armstrong. I’m not sure which story Chazelle is telling here, from which perspective. There are several sequences similar to that opening one, but even the climactic one isn’t quite as pulsating or awe-inducing as perhaps you’d like.
Where it succeeds best is in the look. We’re so used to zippy, shiny sci-fi, that this is more of a retro space movie. The metal creaks, the rivets strain, the air pipes and suits look antique, the plastic knobs and levers positively quaint. It’s more like a WWII submarine film than a space movie – one can compare it, of course, to Gravity, which also took the Venice opening slot a few years ago, but it has more in common with Capricorn One (1978) and The Right Stuff (1983).
What it doesn’t give us is fresh insight into Neil Armstrong. I knew little about going in, and I don’t know much more coming out. The magnitude of his achievement does dawn on you when you see the world watching the “giant leap for mankind” but maybe it’s this legacy that would have been more interesting to explore – how a man deals with the label history thrusts on him?
I don’t want to be too harsh on the movie. The spectre of death and failure haunts Armstrong, and that’s bravely faced head on by Gosling’s performance, but we never get behind the eyes – indeed, much of the time, there’s a layer of helmet glass between us and our leading man’s face. So, solid as the film is, indeed peppered with moments of brilliance, there’s something missing.
Respect to the re-united La La team, though, of Justin Hurwitz’s score, Linus Sandgren’s gritty camerawork and Mary Zophres’ costume design, which all excel.
I liked, too, the use of singer Leon Bridges to recite Gil Scot Heron’s protest song Whitey on the Moon as the political situation hots up. Moments like this feel genuine and passionate but, unlike the Eagle, this film never really lands.