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Friday, 10 May 2019

Movie review: First Man, dir Damien Chazelle (2018)

This interesting and ambitious biopic focuses very strongly on the character of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who was the first man to step on the moon in 1969. Claire Foy as the astronaut’s wife Janet is effective but the other main characters are all played by competent character actors and their role is always a supporting one, despite Gosling's Armstrong’s laconic honesty and tin-tacks attitude toward his profession.

The film deftly employs a rich visual vocabulary to give the viewer a feeling for how it felt to be an astronaut, and the reliance on bald visual statements that depend on the technology involved in the enterprise as well as the stunning beauty of life outside the Earth’s atmosphere is effective. I was impressed by the honesty of the depictions used and also humbled by the fairly overt quote from Kubrick in one scene where the backing track is a waltz. From an aesthetic point of view this film pushes all the right buttons.

The Armstrong character’s troubles with the memory of his daughter, Karen, who passed away as a result of cancer at an early age, is not so perfectly handled. It is as though the director needed a weakness to give the character depth. This mental tic pops up from time to time and serves as a powerful plot device at various times in the movie.

I saw this movie during a 15-hour flight over the Indian Ocean and so the shuddering rockets and the eerily quiet space capsules worked for me in an immediate sense, as well.

I think this film deserves recognition for what it tries to do. In the context of your typical American chest thumping, it is remarkably understated. The flag only appears twice in the film. It appears once in a scene where one of Armstrong’s young sons is raising it on a flagpole. The other scene it appears in is a wide shot of the moon lander with the flag set up on the moon’s surface nearby. In neither shot is the sentimental function of the flag overpowering. The importance however of the Russian adventures in space in motivating the US government to fund the moon program on the other hand is highlighted, and money is talked about in a number of different scenes some of which feature characters based on people from the post-war civil rights push.

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