Monday, 15 October 2018

First Man: Dark Drama Recreates the Life of Neil Armstrong

Apollo 11 crew members reunited with their wives through the window of their quarantine trailer following their flight. NASA image.
The long awaited biopic of Neil Armstrong, "First Man," is finally in theatres, and it is memorable in  ways that set it apart from previous movies about the space program, especially the ensemble epic "The Right Stuff," the historical cliffhanger "Apollo 13," and the uplift of "Hidden Figures."

The New York Times hit the nail on the head by calling the film “sweeping and intimate,”  referring to "First Man’s" unwavering focus on Armstrong and his family that excludes almost everyone else he worked with to make it to the Moon on Apollo 11

The film takes Armstrong from his days flying the X-15 in the early days of the 1960s through to a recreation of his reunion with his wife Jan in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory shortly after Apollo 11. In between Armstrong is permanently scarred emotionally by the death of his young daughter Karen before he joins the astronaut corps, where he survives brushes with death on Gemini 8 and a crash of the balky Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, and deals with the loss of his astronaut friends Elliott See in a jet crash and Ed White in the Apollo 1 fire before Apollo 11 launches to the Moon.

As befits a film based on a biography written by the great aerospace historian James R. Hansen, "First Man" contains many uncannily accurate recreations of Armstrong’s world. Some inaccuracies are introduced in the interests of moving the plot along. As well, the lunar surface in the final moments of the Eagle’s descent is shown to be much more rugged than it really was, only to give way to a more accurate surface once the astronauts walk on it. And the filmmakers couldn’t resist the temptation to substitute the television shot of Buzz Aldrin’s descent of the LM ladder in place of the poorer quality view of Armstrong’s first step. These are minor quibbles.

The most striking aspects of "First Man" are its unrelenting darkness and the grittiness of its space scenes. Much of the action takes place in curtained rooms or at night. When the sun makes a rare appearance, one is tempted to squint in discomfort. And the launch of Apollo 11, which in reality took place on a brilliantly sunny July morning, is depicted as taking place on a dark, cloudy day that reminds one of the stormy launch of Apollo 12, complete with rain stains left on the spacecraft windows throughout the flight. The spacecraft interiors have the look of surplus aircraft from World War II. 

Armstrong was often criticized for his bland demeanor. Director Damien Chazelle has transformed this aspect of Armstrong into gloom and emotional isolation caused by the tragedies he encountered on his way to the Sea of Tranquility. The film's dark tone also reflects filmmaking fashions of today's harsh and polarized world.

"First Man's" tight focus on Armstrong's struggles means that filmgoers will learn very little about the background of Apollo, aside from John F. Kennedy's summons to reach the Moon before the Soviet Union. And a short protest sequence is arguably the only time that the film acknowledges that the action is set in the 1960s.

Instead of "The Right Stuff" or "Apollo 13," "First Man's" gritty style reminds me more of two recent Russian films on its own space program, "Spacewalk" and "Salyut 7."

Having said all that, the harsh realities and the thrills of space exploration are depicted in memorable fashion in its flight sequences. "First Man" is essential viewing for anyone interested in the central event of the 1960s Space Race. 

No comments:

Post a Comment