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  • Colin Fraser


THREE STARS Neil Armstrong heads to the moon, becoming the first man to make one small step for mankind.

Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy


Ever since Georges Méliès’ A TRIP TO THE MOON, every generation has had its astronautical story. In past years A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE RIGHT STUFF rose to the top, more recently APOLLO 13 and the sensational GRAVITY boldly offered something new and exciting. Now Earth’s most famous astronaut once more takes a small step in FIRST MAN.

Much has been made of Damien Chazelle’s biopic about Neil Armstrong (played with some panache by his LA LA LAND collaborator, Ryan Gosling) and much of it is well deserved. This is an extremely polished telling of how one man got to stand on the moon and lived to tell the tale. The movie starts at the start and ends at the end, moving forward with little in the way of narrative gimmicks; this is a no-nonsense film, rather like Armstrong himself. It concentrates on how it felt to sit in a cramped, noisy, uncomfortable tin can and be hurtled into outer space, all the while hoping that the guy who riveted it together actually knew how to rivet things. Several of Armstrong’s colleagues weren’t so lucky.

FIRST MAN is therefore a visceral experience as it captures the sense of adventure and urgency that propelled both the Gemini and then Apollo missions that eventually took man to the moon. It also shows how much of this high-stakes game was made up as they went along, driven largely by a desperate need to beat the Soviets. To a lesser extent, Chazelle also reveals the deep emotions at play, despite Armstrong, a desperately private man, keeping his cards close to his chest. And so we concentrate on the rockets and the suits and the tin cans. Big picture stuff.

That said, it’s the same big picture that has already been seen in THE RIGHT STUFF and APOLLO 13, in GRAVITY and A SPACE ODYSSEY and many, many others. There’s little about this that’s especially new and nor does Chazelle find a way to make this most famous story seem new; something Ron Howard impressively achieved with Hanks’ exploding spaceship. Any student of Wikipedia knew the outcome of Apollo 13’s fateful mission yet for a couple of hours, Howard made it feel like anything could happen. Not so here.

There’s no doubt that Armstrong was an exceptional pilot - he flew to the moon after all. But it can also be argued that he was just an ordinary man who had greatness thrust upon him. We all know his name simply because he was the first man on the moon. That of itself - being first - isn’t the stuff of legends, otherwise we’d be talking about Buzz Aldrin instead. Nor is it, of itself, enough for a truly great movie. In all honesty, Armstrong is not that interesting; it’s how he got to the moon that is. There are moments of wonder - the film’s greatest scene is full screen and whisper quiet, and for a second or two we actually get to feel what it must have been like to float in space. It’s amazing.

The rest of the time we’re told what it must have been like, which is always less than amazing. Chilly almost, like being in space.

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