Neil Armstrong

First Man

24/10/18

Q: Who was Neil Armstrong?

A: The first man to walk on the moon.

Q: Yes, but who was Neil Armstrong?

This is the question that informs Damien Chazelle’s intriguing and surprisingly intimate biopic of the astronaut who took ‘a giant step for mankind.’ It’s an attempt to reveal the true nature of one of the most famous men in history. It’s also a curiously thankless task because, as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is an enigma, a man so tightly buttoned-up that he is unable to reveal his true self, even to his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).

We first encounter him in 1961, when he is a test pilot for the infamous X-15 rocket-powered plane, putting himself in danger on an almost daily basis without complaint or, indeed, comment. It is the same year that his infant daughter Karen dies as a result of a brain tumour, something that affects him deeply for the rest of his life and that prompts him to enlist in the fledgling space programme – as though, in order to hide from his own grief, he needs to get as far away from his home planet as possible. Gosling is terrific in the central role, expertly conveying a taciturn hero, whose inner turmoil rages like an inferno behind a perpetually blank expression.

First Man also offers us alarming glimpses into early space missions, which seem to consist of men strapping themselves into oversized biscuit tins, crossing their fingers and blasting off into the stratosphere. It demonstrates how arduous it was, how downright dangerous. As Janet observes at one point, the team of ‘experts’ behind the space missions have no real idea of what they’re doing, they are just ‘boys building balsa wood models.’ But the all-pervading desire to beat the Russians to the moon leads them to cast caution to the wind. This is amply conveyed by the tragedy of the 1967 Apollo Mission test that results in the deaths of three astronauts. It’s brilliantly underplayed, a single thread of smoke escaping from a sealed hatch demonstrating how the awful details of such incidents are always kept securely locked away from the public gaze.

This is a nuts and bolts depiction of the events leading up to one of mankind’s most memorable achievements and it tells me more about those events than I’ve ever heard before. It’s only in the climactic sequence – the moon landing itself – where the film is finally allowed to slip into the realms of grandeur, the endless grey vistas of the lunar landscape brilliantly recreated. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that the mission is successful – but, once back on earth and with Neil in quarantine, he and his wife are  still on opposite sides of a glass wall – this time literally.

So no change there.

Chazelle’s film is certainly on the long side, weighing in at two hours and twenty one minutes (ironically, exactly the same length as the last film we saw, Bad Times at the El Royale) and it might have benefited from a tighter pace, but it manages to keep me hooked throughout. And the next time somebody asks me the question, ‘Who was Neil Armstrong?’ I’ll be able to give a much more detailed reply.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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Voices From the Moon

26/05/18

I shall begin this review with a question: who was the third astronaut who accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their famous moon mission?  If you answer, ‘Mike Collins,’ well done. If you say that you haven’t the foggiest idea, well, you’re not alone. His name has pretty much disappeared from people’s memory, including mine.

We’re at the Hidden Door Festival and we’re here, specifically, to see Public Burning Theatre’s production of James Harker’s play, Voices From the Moon. We first became aware of Harker’s work through Manchester’s 24/7 Festival in 2015, where we really rated his poignant play Gary: A Love Story. And when we moved to Edinburgh, we told him that if he was ever up our way, he should get in touch…

Hence our visit to the gloriously ramshackle Hidden Door, where several very different offerings are taking place in a couple of semi-derelict buildings in Leith. The festival has managed to pull in a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd, but it quickly becomes apparent that organisation isn’t their strongest point. After a few mix-ups, we finally arrive at the right venue in time to watch the play.

It’s a monologue, the story of Steph (Steph Reynolds), confined to her bedroom by agoraphobia, where she has compiled a sizeable collection of books, tapes and videos concerning her main obsession – the NASA moon landing of July 1969. Meanwhile, she tries to apply herself to the idea of taking her own personal giant leap for mankind – convincing herself that she has the right stuff to actually set foot outside her Mother’s house. The parallels are clear – and Reynolds is a confident and appealing performer, who makes the best of playing a venue where the sound from another production taking place right next door is sometimes disconcertingly intrusive. I like the idea that Steph’s ‘Mother’ is in the audience tonight, her part played by an unsuspecting member of the public, but I am less keen on the staging of the play, which obliges Steph to constantly move three step ladders around in order to illustrate individual scenes – a device that occasionally feels distracting.

But the play shines through. Not only do I learn more about the moon landing than I had previously known – the name of that third astronaut, for example – I also find myself being increasingly drawn into Steph’s world and caring more and more about her disabling predicament.

Voices From the Moon is compelling stuff, confirming James Harker as a writer to look out for.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney