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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

First Man // Retro Review

Popular accounts of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission describe it almost like fantasy; a wondrous achievement marking new ground in American scientific excellence. But of course, the conception of Apollo 11 was anything but excellent.

The United States lived in fear of their perceptually superior Soviet rivals, and in 1962 President Kennedy made a flailing and blind promise to put a man on the moon by the decade’s end. With his assassination this vow become a burden to his successors, and as the clock kept ticking it become something worse; a job.

What Damian Chazelle does exceedingly well in First Man is recontextualise the Space Race into something markably less magical. Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is a man in a factory, wasting his days on puzzles and problems he chooses over the upbringing of his children.

Like America, he is licking his wounds, playing his part as a victim of devastating tragedy (whether it be the Bay of Pigs or the death of a child). He is surrounded by unremarkable men wrestling more with admin than astrophysics; in particular the depiction of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) as the worst guy in every office workplace is an inspired gag.

Perhaps controversially, it is for this reason that I think First Man is at its weakest when depicting the actual launch and landing of Apollo 11. Chazelle works hard to keep things grounded and ordinary, locking us largely in close ups of creaky metal and Gosling’s dead and dull eyes, but the feat of fulfilling JFK’s dream is simply less interesting than the demystification of the men who made it happen.

That said, the final scene is as untouchable as any in Chazelle’s repertoire. In the eyes of America, the Moon is a cleansing force that allows even the most lost and beaten of us to start anew. Neil Armstrong was a loser who truly believed the Moon could repair his family, but Chazelle is under no such delusion. Armstrong returns to Earth quarantined in a literal cage that all too similar to the one he tried to escape in a rocket ship. Apollo 11 was just a job, and Neil Armstrong was the man paid to push the buttons. God bless America.


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