This production has been a long time-coming. Drawn from James R. Hansen’s book and originally to be directed by Clint Eastwood, it is now handled by Damien Chazelle.
In what is only his fourth feature, he successfully depicts eight extraordinary years in the life of publicity-shy first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012). The film was the centre of ridiculous controversy even before it was completed due to it being about Neil himself more than the specifics of ‘The Space Race’ (see The Right Stuff for that) or the US of A. It’s a gripping human drama, even at 141 minutes, and amazingly builds real suspense and tension even though we all know full well what’s going to happen.
Ryan Gosling (star of Chazelle’s previous pic La La Land) doesn’t look quite like the real Neil but is so good it doesn’t matter. He’s introduced in 1961 in a striking sequence where he very nearly doesn’t make it back from a flight past the Earth’s atmosphere that reached more than 140000 feet. He returns to terra firma to face the impending death of his terminally ill baby daughter, and while certain cynics will complain that this is a contrived Hollywood touch it’s nevertheless very moving.
Armstrong, a military and civilian pilot, signs up for the Gemini Program while his family grows, telling his (first) wife Janet (English player Claire Foy) that it’s “a fresh start” and starting the years of intense physical and psychological tests required to be considered for the first manned mission to the moon. He befriends a number of other astronaut wannabes through the years, including the ill-fated Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), and there are some lovely scenes as the Armstrongs socialise with the family of Ed White (Aussie Jason Clarke), and they all try not to talk about the darker side of primitive space travel.
An epic full of contrasts (jarringly loud noises and dead silence, vast nothingness and huge close-ups, lunar fears and Earthbound pain), Chazelle’s film is notable for being his first without a musical edge, although Justin Hurwitz’s score is very fine and there’s a merciful lack of simplistic, scene-setting popular music (no one whips out Sgt. Pepper’s, for example). And yes, it does omit one apparently important detail in its final section that’s sent flag-waving patriots into paroxysms of fury, and yet this was never a loony-left or ‘pinko’ decision. After all, this is a film about Neil, not America.