This is not what I thought it would be.
A film about the first man to walk on the moon, I expected a sort of ‘successful’ Apollo 13, but what we get instead is a psychological study of Neil Armstrong – test pilot, astronaut, engineer, father and husband- that makes Apollo 13 look ordinary by comparison.
It looks at the kind of man he was, what drove him, the sacrifices that he and others made, how he coped and what it all cost him in the end.
This is a slow-burn film, and at 141 minutes, quite a long one. At one point in the middle I must confess, I almost fell asleep, but I’m so glad I didn’t.
Damian Chazzelle has directed a masterpiece, using all the tricks of the trade, old and new. Handheld cameras, tight close ups, mixed in NASA footage, all give a cinema verite feel, making you experience the claustrophobia of the astronauts.
Right at the start you are taken into the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane. Flown by Armstrong, it reaches the upper atmosphere and gives him a tantalising glimpse of space. All the flying scenes are done incredibly well, placing you right at the heart of the action.
Ryan Gosling as Neil, and Claire Foy as his wife Jane, make a great couple, and perhaps one of the reasons they were cast is that they act so well with just their eyes. Invaluable when so much is shot in close up.
We start to follow their lives as they go through the death of their two-year old daughter, Karen. Unable to express his grief, Neil applies for the Space Programme and is accepted. Moving to Houston and a fresh start, they befriend other astronauts and their wives, and we are taken through their rigorous training.
Tragedy strikes more than once, and with each friend Neil loses, he becomes more and more withdrawn from Jane and his two sons, and more focused on his work. Eventually he is given command of Apollo 11, the mission to the moon.
The landing itself gave me shivers. Starting slowly, Neil and Buzz Aldrin drift towards the target site only to find it covered in boulders. Taking manual control, the surface drifts closer and closer, the tension mounting with each moment, all aided by the superb musical score, leading to a crescendo as the craft touches down with only thirty seconds of fuel left.
It’s one of the best pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen.
After broadcasting to Earth the historic message “Houston…the Eagle has landed” the two embark on a moon walk, where Chazzelle, possibly using artistic licence, possibly not, creates such a simple, unexpected and emotional ending that it almost made me cry.
Chazelle shows what an incredible talent he is, someone who can subvert conventions with ease. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a second Oscar.
This film is an amazing, slow, quiet, shattering experience. The best film of the year so far.