One of my favorite movies is Interstellar by Christopher Nolan. There are some moments in this space-faring movie where the threat of imminent death combines with the genius of human scientific endeavor along with one human’s will to survive that fill me with a riot of glorious, awe-inspiring emotions. I’m thinking primarily of the moment where they have to pull their main ship out of a spiraling death spin through an insane docking maneuver.
Phew. That whole extended sequence is insane. Stressful and hopeful in equal measure, with soaring music that keeps on ratcheting the tension and stakes to deliver such a whopping load of awe-flavored serotonin in the brain.
First Man is the OG of docking maneuvers. Of course it is – this is the first time we ever attempted two spaceships docking in space. They had to do it, so the lunar lander could attach back to the spaceship. And being the OG, does it play as well or better than the docking sequences in Interstellar?
Let’s ruminate on that for a moment.
First Man tells the story of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, played here by Ryan Gosling as an incredibly pensive, bottled up man. He goes for long, pregnant pauses. He jokes rarely. He is a very serious person, with deep pain hidden within. He wants to go to the moon because, well, he gives one reason to his job interview board, and another to us, when we see what he does at the end, at the edge of a dark moon crater.
I buy all that. I like Gosling, I liked his restrained, still waters running performance. The movie follows him and his wife and kids through about 8 years of NASA history – opening with a rocket test wher ehe first breaks through the atmosphere to see the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth, all the way up to the landing.
The story is told with emotion; we get to see the strain it puts on his family, and the cost in lives along the way. The cinematography is often tight and cluastrophobic, focusing only on Armstrong’s eyes as we rattle and clank in a rocket launch along with him. We get some taste of hos it might feel to sit atop an exploding bomb as it shoots directly up into the sky. The characters often talk about the rockets with reverence. When we see them, their sheer size overwhelms.
Armstrong is captain. He’s keeping everything buttoned down; his team, his family, his emotions. He gets snippy when people pry into his personal life. He buckles when it’s his wife – as he should. She humanizes him more than anything. He resists, but does what he has to in the end – in a matter of fact discussion with his children before the final launch – stating that he might not come back.
There are moments of wonder and grace in this movie. The opening ‘bounce along the atmosphere’ is thrilling. The first docking procedure is taut and terrifying, as good as almost anything in Gravity. My major quibble – and I’m not sure if I’m right to quibble, since this was my hope going in, and not necessarily director Damien Chazelle’s intention – was to be overwhelmed by the final landing.
I wanted it to feel like that moment in Interstellar, or the final landing of Gravity. Soaring music uplifting me to a higher plane through human ingenuity, defiance, and science. Sad to say, I did not get that. The landing was played pretty flat, by my lights. I can call it ‘honest’. Like a nice simple broth, Chazelle provides everything you would expect. Chopped onion. Well-braised chicken. Stock and salt. But there is no alchemy here, combining to send a thrill down my spine and a flutter in my stomach.
So I was a little disappointed.
Further, and this is probably connected to the issue of ‘honesty’ as well – the story gets a bit dull, I supose in the middle. I can’t say that I exactly wanted it to hurry up, or be edited differently. Perhaps this is just the movie that it is – it takes its time, lets the material breathe, doesn’t try to tell you how to feel with the soaring strings or fanfares of trumpets.
I would have been happier with more emotional manipulation. A faster rush through all the mishaps and family issues – perhaps inspired by the legendary rocket ignition/leaving home behind scene in Interstellar. That is of course only 10 seconds, so not that fast. But still.
And yet, I don’t really complain. We’ve never seen this piece of history presented in this way before. That’s beautiful. Maybe it’s enough that I have Interstellar and Gravity to give me those feelings of awe. What Neil Armstrng achieves, while obviously world-shaking at the time, has mellowed now with age. It is still stunning. It is honest. It’s big enough in it’s own reality to make us think, even if it doesn’t deliver the tingles.
I look forward very much to see what Chazelle does next. He’s up there with Nolan as one of my favorite directors.