Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle’s chronicling of the moon landing is a serious, detailed homage to vanishing American exceptionalism.
There’s a place in the American film canon for Apollo 13 and its grandiose, ra-ra flag waving. It’s a fine piece of work – probably Ron Howard’s best. So too with The Right Stuff, which stands as one of the better literary-to-cinematic adaptations, which captured the new journalism spirit of Tom Wolfe’s book so well. Any suggestion that one of those films “did it better” than Damien Chazelle’s First Man is an abject falsehood: this is a film in and of its own sort, one which carves out its own niche depicting a time and place in the ’60s where the impossible was within reach.
Chazelle has shown a predilection for generic variety in his career; jumping from the viscerally emotional violence in the stage drama Whiplash, to the effervescence of the musical pastiche La La Land. But here, there seems to be a handful of influences making a significant impact on his filmic imprint. Initially, the film’s wistful, ethereal tone plays hints of Terrence Mallick – there are more than a few visual and audio cues that hark back to Mallick’s Tree of Life. And I’d pity any film maker to construct a shot of a spaceship while classical music plays in the background lest anyone in the audience has even the most passing awareness of Stanley Kubrick.
Not to get too film geeky on you, but ensure you see this film in a cinema with a solid audio set-up; the devil is in the details here, and this is a film with an audio mix par excellence. It is a key character in the film, the way that the entire Gemini-Apollo missions were products of mechanical engineering – all rivets and bolts and gears. Nothing is digital, or smooth. When Armstrong is piloting test flights, and any number of alarms, creaks and explosions happen around him, the experience is all involving. It’s brilliantly shot to look like it was done on ’60s-era film stock and is edited with keen precision. The tension created here (in a scenario whose conclusion is a fait accompli) is mind blowing.
But the meat and potatoes of the piece shows Chazelle skewing from the sharp, bright tones of La La Land into a more cinema verite-style documentarian’s approach. The detailing is exquisite here; the film is objectively serious – these are serious people doing serious things. Their mission couldn’t be of greater import. So, it’s a solid bit of casting to see Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, one actor of steel-cut gaze, mining some of his sterner acting chops from Drive here, as a man who made a mark on history of no lesser import than Galileo or Christopher Columbus before he all but vanished from the public eye.
Gosling seems perfectly cast as Armstrong; clean cut, all-American and with a haircut you could set your watch to. The NASA astronauts of the time were men of a bygone era, amid the counter-culture wars rising as Vietnam raged on, the literal, walking embodiment of irony: men from the past with their eyes looking to the future.
This is where the notion of American exceptionalism comes in. Chazelle intercuts a scene in the final act with a speech from John F Kennedy, challenging his fellow countrymen to rise to the occasion and get Americans onto the moon, which they do (spoiler alert) as forecast, within the decade. Johnson and Nixon don’t get a look-in. It’s an interesting piece in that it seems very much to be the first cinematic entry of the Trump era.
Because here we are, close to 50 years after the facts in the film, and their Commander in Chief never says anything which can be regarded with even the most tenuous seriousness. He spits out word vomit like “Space Force” that only the drooling yob mentality of his cultist followers swallow with any relish, while any notions of achievement, accomplishment or exceptionalism seem to fall by the wayside to bombast and lies. First Man will, in all likelihood, be the subject of academic dissertations in years to come as being the first American film to use the medium to hold up a mirror to this empire in decline. Great art, it seems, is the price to pay for witnessing Rome burn in real time.