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Thursday, November 1, 2018


Damien Chazelle’s movie about the first moon landing is visually ravishing and quietly absorbing. (Review by Patrick Compton. 8/10)

I was flying from England to South Africa 49 years ago when my flight was forced to land in Frankfort, Germany, in order to change crews. How lucky we were. During the interim we were able to watch the moon landing “live” on a huge screen at the airport.

Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) captures all the wonder of that moment in 1969 in his latest movie, in which Ryan Gosling gives another of his profoundly understated performances (think Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive in 2011) as the almost wordless astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Adapted by Spotlight scriptwriter Josh Singer from James R Hansen’s book, this movie is by no means a demonstration of American tub-thumping although there are plenty of references to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead, Chazelle has boldly chosen to turn what could so easily have been an exercise in American space bravura into a low-key study of grief.

How so? Singer’s script chooses to reference Armstrong’s key motivation as his deep sense of loss over the death of his young daughter, Karen, of cancer. It’s a bereavement that informs almost everything he does in the movie, leading to a moving emotional climax on the moon that notably excludes the planting of the American flag (an omission, incidentally, that angered President Donald Trump).

Time and again cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures a reserved Gosling in isolation in the Armstrong home, establishing the presence of a solitary man who is precariously balanced between inner and outer space. Claire Foye, excellent as his sometimes exasperated wife, struggles to penetrate her husband’s bubble, as do their two young sons.

Although it is Armstrong’s haunting memory of Karen that informs Armstrong’s training for the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle doesn’t underestimate the objective dangers of the enterprise and the extraordinary bravery of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as they undergo a succession of claustrophobic stress tests.

The astronauts famously described their mission experience as being “spam in a can” in Philip Kaufman’s masterful The Right Stuff (1983), and Phil Barrie’s screeching, jangling cockpit sound effects underline their sense of helplessness and imminent danger. There’s no avoiding the spectre of death as the shocking loss of friends and colleagues punctuate the action in the years running up to the climactic mission.

Equally, however, when immediate danger has passed, it is Justin Hurwitz’s delicate score that emphasises the haunting beauty and loneliness of space as well as Armstrong’s private universe of grief and loss. On a warmer note, and taking a lead from Lunar Rhapsody, a romantic tune that Armstrong loved, Chazelle allows us to connect with his very private hero.

The First Man opened last Friday, on October 26, 2018. I would recommend watching it at the spectacular Gateway IMAX cinema. – Patrick Compton