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Alan Charlton

One giant leap, one so-so film  

Voices Oct. 28, 2018

Ryan Gosling in First Man, which presents Neil Armstrong as a decidedly bleak character obsessed by the death of his two-year-old-daughter and who carries his grief like a flag, writes Alan Charlton. (CNS photo/Universal) 

For the millions who watched Neil Armstrong land on the surface of the moon, the event became one of those forever seared into memory.

It was truly a heart-stopping moment and, of course, Armstrong became an international hero. It is surprising, therefore, that it has taken this long for the lunar expedition to become the subject of a movie. First Man, based on the authorized biography of Armstrong by James Hansen, is not, however, likely to endear itself to audiences, whether young or old.

It is a fact that Hansen found Armstrong to be a rather introverted man, not given to assuming the part of high heroics; however, the fact that Ryan Gosling, who portrays Armstrong, decides to present the man as stolid, almost emotionless, does present a problem for film audiences.

It’s difficult to engage with a man who is almost invariably stoic. In fact, First Man presents Armstrong as a decidedly bleak character, a man who is obsessed by the death of his two-year-old-daughter and who carries his grief like a flag throughout his training and successful history-making trip.

Not having read Hansen’s book, I cannot say whether such is the thrust of the biography, though an article on NBC’s Mach site certainly does not indicate that the child’s death had anything like the impact on Armstrong that the film gives it.

This may be deliberate on the part of screenwriter Josh Singer in an attempt to give some humanity to the man. This might be all very well, had the rest of the film enabled viewers to see all that contributed to Armstrong’s success.

However, this is no The Right Stuff movie. As a result, the film shows little of the complex training through which Armstrong had to go; nor does it present much of the technical difficulties which had to be overcome to make the moon landing successful. Instead, the film shows a series of montages in which Armstrong and other astronauts are tested in capsules. These are presented with violent camera movement as the men are furiously shaken in obviously bone-jarring and disorientating intensity. Indeed, there are reports that some moviegoers have suffered physical reactions to such scenes.

That these scenes are interspersed with much calmer scenes of Armstrong’s private life does not really contribute to the success of the film, since too often Armstrong is shown as often indifferent to his two sons and more often heedless of his long-suffering wife. It is true that later the Armstrongs divorced, but this does nothing to give the character heroic status or promote audience sympathy.

A further concern is the film merely touches on the controversy regarding the money spent on the expedition. While this may seem a minor issue in light of the success of the mission, it might have lent the film more interest.

A further, unavoidable, difficulty with the film is the audience knows the moon flight was successful, so as one approaches the climax, which is beautifully recreated, there is a remarkable lack of tension. That it is possible to provide such tension, even when the audience knows the outcome, is amply illustrated by that great space movie Apollo 13 which provided a riveting and far more comprehensive account of actual space travel.

Disappointing as First Man is, it does remind viewers of one of the great achievements of human history. Technically it is more than competent in portraying the realities of the flight to the moon. Though even here a word of warning is appropriate. I viewed the film in an Imax theatre. Unless one prepares oneself with ear plugs, this is not something to be recommended as the sound is turned up to the highest level the speakers will permit. The result is endangerment to one’s hearing, as even a scene of someone closing a door is occasion for an eardrum-splitting explosion of sound. And, of course, this Brobdingnagian view of people means every skin pore has the unappealing appearance of a volcanic crater – certainly not flattering to the actors!

The makers of First Man clearly had the best of intentions in trying to memorialize a great human achievement. Indeed, this has resulted in the controversial omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon’s surface – an attempt to show this was indeed a giant step for all humankind (and not just one part of it).

However well-intentioned the makers were, the reality is they do little to make viewers aware of the totality of the achievement or to endow Neil Armstrong with anything like the heroic status he has assumed in the world’s eyes.