Fifty years after US astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, films about real life space travel are a genre with well-established conventions. First Man is refreshingly unafraid to break them.
It’s well worth seeing, and seeing in a cinema.
You might expect luxurious exterior shots exalting the glory of space with slow, inspiring music.
Well, there’s a bit of that. The lunar descent sequence is awesome and gorgeous, the eerily silent and colourless moonwalk that follows perhaps even more so.
But this is more a film of cramped cockpits, loud and confusing with the scream of hot metal and the bleeping of alarms. It’s intensely claustrophobic, the camera right up in Armstrong actor Ryan Gosling’s face.
You might expect a procedural plot about technical problems and ingenuous solutions. But this is a film about humans, not science.
At its core is emotionally-repressed Armstrong’s struggle to grieve for the daughter he lost to cancer. He shuts himself off from his family, adding to the strain caused by his repeated absences and brushes with death.
Claire Foy is impressive as Jean Armstrong, whose domestic labour fills the gap, and who angrily confronts her husband and his Nasa bosses.
The tension in their marriage acts as a microcosm of the debate around the space race.
Is it, as Jean snaps, just “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood”? Or is it, as Ed White played by Jason Clarke gushes, a noble quest to “look out” and “expand our horizons”? White died in the Apollo 1 cockpit fire, shown in all its horrific suddenness. Armstrong, bloodied in a crash, later admonishes his bosses for asking a little too late whether the cost was worth it.
The point is echoed with glimpses of critics, from skinflint politicians to protesters. The space programme wasn’t just a bunch of brilliant scientists and brave pilots. It was the US state, a superpower that was also busy grinding its own citizens down in poverty, segregation and setting Vietnam ablaze.
Sending Armstrong to the moon helped US imperialism pose as the representative of all humanity, who watched with bated breath across the world. Today that state sees its power waning, its economy stagnating and a monster in the White House.
So the Apollo programme is the perfect myth for those who’d rather “Make America Great Again” through the cosmopolitan imperialism of John F Kennedy than the insularity of Trump.
The film is as ambiguous as it can probably get away with, even
controversially omitting Armstrong planting a US flag on the moon.
But however much it does to deconstruct a myth of US greatness, it does a bit more to revive it.