First Man (2018) **
Dir.: Damien Chazelle; Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Olivia Hamilton, Patrick Fugit, Derek Stayton, Corey Stoll; USA 2018, 135 min.
Based on the novel by James R. Hansen and scripted by Josh Singer, director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the overrated La la Land, is a mixture of Buddy movie and historical comic-strip, painting a picture of a time where everything was still OK in the USA. But like Lala Land, Chazelle has no gift for good storytelling: everything about his narrative is episodic, there are some stunning scenes, but they never form a whole, or bridge the gap between the personal and the factual in this space adventure story, which sometimes feels quite clunky.
Set between 1961 and 1969, First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Gosling), the titular first man to set foot on the moon. Neil and his wife Janet (Foy) lose their baby daughter to a brain tumour, and we all know immediately where her wristband will end up. Most of Neil’s mates – Kyle Chandler (Stayton), Corey Stoll (Aldrin) and Elliot See (Fugit) come across as cyphers. Only Edward Higgins (Clarke) and his wife Pat (Hamilton) are fleshed out convincingly, but Higgins is written out half-way through, dying in a fire during a test run with two colleges.
Ryan Gosling is not the ideal choice, being too introverted for the part, stonewalling his emotions, the actor’s face betraying his real feelings. In the end Janet has to force him to tell his two sons, that he might not return alive from the Apollo flight. Lots of time is wasted with technical explanations, the running time could have easily been cut by thirty minutes. We get newsreel flashes about the Vietnam War and other newsworthy topics of the period, but the real issues are never tackled. For example, Wernher Von Braun, the program director, was a staunch Nazi in charge of the V-Weapons in WWII, who used slave-labour, for which his boss Sauckl was executed, Von Braun’ status was changed from ‘committed Nazi’ to ‘Neutral’. It is true that the USSR also used Nazi scientists for their Sputnik programme, initiating the joke “We speak German in Space”. Last, but not least, Chazelle never challenges the validity of the whole undertaking: what did Armstrong’s fellow astronauts really die for? The scientific value of the Apollo project was limited, but the political victory over the USSR – who had won the first leg of the space race – was immense. One could expect at least expect some form of statement from the filmmakers.
Overall First Man is as disjointed as it is patriotic, centred around a male culture of bonding which is never questioned. The political issues of the 1960s are used merely as a backdrop, the only important aspect is the male world order, which is re-enforced continuously. An undistinguished feature, told with the simplicity of a Boys-Own adventure. AS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL | 28 AUG – 9 SEPT 2018 | NATIONWIDE FROM 12 October 2018