At this stage, we cannot deny that Damien Chazelle is a filmmaker of ambition. With La La Land, his homage to the Hollywood musical's Technicolor golden age, the 33-year-old director set out to swing upon the stars; now, with First Man, Chazelle shoots for the Moon. Considerable studio money has been deployed here to recreate NASA's decade-long Gemini project, the program that eventually led to Neil Armstrong taking his fateful small step/giant leap on July 20, 1969. The feeling within industry circles would seem to be that, after the tightly controlled success of Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle's reach has to some degree exceeded his grasp this time; though appreciably detailed and unfailingly handsome, First Man has failed to connect with the public in quite the same way. Perhaps it's the case that the problems we're now facing on Earth are so time-sucking that space travel seems more than ever a luxury, a pipe dream; more likely, I think, is that audiences got a repelling whiff of the laboratory from the trailer's endless scenes of astronaut testing, or of the faint air of piety the film hardly dispels by casting Ryan Gosling as Armstrong himself. For better and worse, this turns out to be a moon movie for that generation who can't hear the word space without wanting to have the word safe set carefully in front of it.
Josh Singer's script, drawing on James Hansen's 2005 biography, presents us with an Armstrong so sensitive he's practically saintly. We first meet him amid the passing of his young daughter, and he absorbs the impact as a rocket might that of a meteor shower, putting up a brave front at the wake before retreating to a backroom to break down in tears. This tension/release dynamic recurs throughout the film's two-and-a-half hours; Armstrong crumples upon hearing of a colleague's death during testing, then blubs on the Moon in the cinema's most egregiously sentimental voiding-a-necklace scene since Titanic. Where Tom Wolfe and Philip Kaufman lionised the bullishness of the NASA test pilots in 1983's The Right Stuff - still a stratospherically high bar for this kind of space opus - Chazelle casts the calf-like Gosling as a caring, softly spoken husband and father, a straight-up New Age spaceman characterised above all else by a dutiful stability. Explaining a design element to wife Janet (Claire Foy) over the breakfast table, this Armstrong remarks that, all in all, it's "pretty neat" - and there is something both touching and limiting in that modesty. Space exploration is here reframed not as a higher calling, nor as some out-of-this-world adventure, rather a nuts-and-bolts job undertaken by the hardiest civil servants. We don't need the hacky contrast Singer draws between his hero and the loudmouthed Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), just as Armstrong barely needs jet-turbine engines to propel him into orbit: he merely rises, with great serenity, above it (and perhaps us) all.
Nevertheless, Chazelle clings to the experiential. First Man will be a boon for any viewer who wants to feel something of what it was to be shot into the higher reaches of the galaxy in a tiny, overheated tin can (and to be shook every which way in the process) or to pass from the deafening roar of a modular touchdown into the eerie silence of a moonwalk. Occasionally, he'll engineer an instructive concatenation of setpieces: we're shown how the punishing training the Gemini and Apollo astronauts endured on the NASA vomit comet readied - and steadied - Armstrong after his module began spinning out of control. (It's a prestige-movie upgrade of Whiplash's insistence that practice makes perfect.) Yet First Man desperately needs these thrills to shake multiple elements from inertia: a camera otherwise head-over-heels in love with its leading man (no mind that, deprived of the wit by which other films have made him appear charming, Gosling reverts to boring longface-isms), a script fashioned from so much cheese, a narrative set on a trajectory we all already know. The one new feature in this retelling - the retroactive imposition of 21st century trauma talk on a mid-20th century history, so that the daughter's death, rather than Mission Control, steers this mission - felt to me like a misstep, and Singer's view of Armstrong family life is almost entirely hollow, informed less by any reality than by pre-existing biopic tropes.
Foy strives - heroically, but vainly - to fortify a wife role that chiefly requires her to put the washing on (hey, those NASA undershorts won't clean themselves), stare at a radio, and tell gushing anecdotes that apply gentle sheen to the Armstrong legend while waiting for her hubby to come home. Inevitably, hubby's obsession leads to the third-act scene where the couple rows about something triflingly insignificant in the vast cosmic scheme, and I genuinely thought this was one of those films so tangled up with ideas of The Family that we were going to get a scene where Armstrong would be forced to choose between going to the Moon and attending his second child's school play. All of which is to caution that First Man is conventional in many respects. As recently as two movies ago, Chazelle seemed like a radical new talent - a hepcat, a rabble-rouser, and just the director we needed to jolt mainstream American cinema from its rut. La La Land repositioned him as a dreamer, which was fine at the time; yet the Chazelle we encounter here is no more than a nostalgic, a pursuer of lost causes. First Man is too well-made to be a complete dud - you find yourself admiring its technical craft, and the soothing precision of the twilight-blue filter DoP Linus Sandgren applies to the image like a compress - and yet it looked to me like another small step backwards, a marked cooling of jets. They put a sap on the Moon.
First Man is now showing in cinemas nationwide.