Man, Alone

Review – First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle

Space exploration is difficult and dangerous. Its technical demands are profound. Its toll is immense. These things are not communicated – or not communicated well – in our age’s space race; it is a commercial drama, where blood is exchanged for balance sheets and vital, war-like international competition is replaced by the pettier prospect of corporate intrigue. Jeff Bezos receives criticism for spending his money on rockets rather than workers’ rights; Richard Branson applies the same cheap showmanship to aerospace as he does to airlines; Elon Musk smokes cannabis on an MMA commentator’s podcast and tweets about anime.

There are moments of glory: the dual landing of two of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy boosters simultaneously – bringing closer the possibility of cheap, safe commercial space travel – thrilled even this technologically illiterate spectator. But the pain is less immense. Rockets are the toys of rich men. Their cargo is rarely human. When they explode, or fail to land, little happens. Maybe a slide-rule is adjusted or a spreadsheet reconfigured, far from view.

This is an absurd perspective, but it is one our present situation naturally sustains. Modern space exploration is smaller-scale and lower-risk. When things go wrong, there is cause for disappointment, not alarm. It is only money, after all.

In space exploration past, the same impression was not possible; and it does not survive a viewing of Damien Chazelle’s film, First Man, which takes as its focus man’s first journey to the moon. It was a difficult, dangerous job, undertaken, in John F. Kennedy’s gloss – and, in that speech, almost enclosed within parentheses – not because it was inevitable, but because it was possible, because it was hard.

To that end, film is absolutely and entirely visually effective, completely correct in its calibration of the look of the era and of the primitive technology its characters were confined to using for the completion of their great feats.

Every earthbound surface feels weighty. Heavy things are built of solid metal, or layered corrugated iron; and neatly-spaced rivets dot every surface. But there is little safety in this solidity. The lunar lander is covered in something which resembles tin-foil in its pliancy and flimsiness. Things are unsafe. The camera shakes endlessly; the central characters are thrown around; some of their friends are, more or less without warning, burnt to death.

In total, the computing power on display comes close to that contained within a not especially inspiring digital watch. Life-saving calculations are done with pencils on paper. All this arcs towards the man, not the machine.

Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling as another in his series of men who don’t talk much, suffers for his talents and faces the prospect of a violent end.

The film has Armstrong shaken – physically and emotionally. His daughter, Karen, suffers from cancer. Armstrong fills pages of a notebook with neatly-written notes concerning her condition and planning how to improve it. Then she dies, and he closes his notebooks and shelves his preparations, left alone with his anguish. Armstrong is alone despite the dependable, steadying presence of his wife Janet, played with control by Claire Foy.

In this telling, Armstrong’s life is turbulent. He bounces off the atmosphere while piloting an experimental jet plane; he barely ejects from a prototype lunar lander and returns to earth heavily, injuring himself in the process; though he and his wife ‘got good at funerals’ in their time among aviators and astronauts, he rocks back and forward, his frame shaking, as he weeps upon contemplating his daughter’s death.

The central conceit of the film holds that Armstrong’s grief so dominated his life and his work, that even the glory of making it to the moon is insufficient to pay the emotional debt. I found myself moved  simply at hearing the old words recited. ‘The Eagle has landed’; ‘one small step for [a] man’; and more. And it seemed as natural to become lachrymose at hearing a partial reading of William Safire’s greatest work, a thankfully undelivered speech written for Richard Nixon to read upon hearing that the astronauts were stranded on the moon, alive but unrecoverable. (Even the prosaic elements of Safire’s memo stir tears. The president would have to telephone the ‘widows-to-be’ before making his address; the men would have a funeral service in which ‘A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.’)

But apparently, for Chazelle, yet more prompting was necessary. He has Armstrong take a memento of his lost daughter to the moon, something which did not, in all likelihood, occur, to tie everything up emotionally. Acceptable licence, perhaps, but made flimsier by Gosling’s tearing up. Such things are acceptable in the audience but not in the astronaut. As Anthony Lane comments in his own review, ‘if Neil Armstrong had been the sort of fellow who was likely to cry on the moon, he wouldn’t have been the first man chosen to go there. He would have been the last.’

First Man uses emotional turmoil as an adjunct for the difficulty and danger of space travel, and fails to grasp the glories which emerged in spite of the latter. Touches of sentimentality detract from the film’s successes – its spare visual beauty, its score.

But it succeeds in spite of its down-to-earth focus on sadness and death and being almost physically grounded, to look up, and glimpse the stars.

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