You would think that a film about Neil Armstrong, a man who landed on the Moon using stone knives and bearskins – comparatively speaking, and as a certain pointy-eared Starfleet officer might put it – would be a little more celebratory in tone.
Suffice to say that if you go into First Man expecting an exuberant celebration of humankind’s first forays into space in the vein of 1983’s The Right Stuff, then your approach vector is all wrong.
And frankly, I’m not really sure what the proper vector should be.
After all, my expectations pretty much crashed and burned against the wall that star Ryan Gosling and his La La Land director Damien Chazelle have put up around the spacefaring legend.
We see the lengths to which Armstrong’s commitment drives him, the risk-taking and the determination to rise above each failure.
We see how a family tragedy leaves him devastated, and comes back to haunt him at certain points in his long journey from the Earth to the Moon.
But at no time do Gosling or Chazelle let us in to see what it is that drives the man, regarded by his peers as a reluctant and humble hero, to do these very things.
An omission by screenwriter Josh Singer in adapting James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong? Areas left unexplored by the author himself? Perhaps a future reading of First Man: The Life Of Neil A. Armstrong would help fill in the many blanks left after this viewing.
In contrast, Claire Foy (The Crown) as Armstrong’s first wife Janet is an open book, making no attempt to hide her emotions/anger at this constant bottling up of emotions on her husband’s part and the perils of his chosen career.
Indeed, the few times First Man rises a tick above its flatlining emotional tone is when Foy and Gosling share the screen – most notably, in a scene when Armstrong packs to leave for the fateful flight without saying goodbye to his sons.
And aside from the very guarded portrayal of Armstrong, I also had problems with how the film treats many important figures of the time. For example, most of the other Nasa luminaries are little more than walk-ons who deliver momentous/portentous dialogue when needed and then saunter out of frame.
Armstrong’s fellow lunar travellers Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) are given short shrift, with Aldrin mainly made out to be a callous loudmouth and Collins as an almost mute witness to the proceedings until he utters a few matter-of-fact lines during their spaceflight.
Technically, First Man is a marvel – from authentic-seeming recreations of the tech back in the early days of the space race to disconcerting, claustrophobic cockpit and cabin interior shots during pivotal flights and launch missions.
Chazelle also succeeds in squeezing maximum tension out of events that have passed into history, which is the most unapologetic spoiler when it comes to movies like this.
So, spoiler: Armstrong and Aldrin do land on the Moon, and the entire landing sequence is every bit the superbly orchestrated centrepiece of the film you hoped it would be.
So, minor spoiler: Armstrong’s family disappears completely from view during this entire sequence.
Granted, it might have been cliché to depict their joy and relief that Armstrong succeeded in the first part of his mission – getting there. And beyond that, getting home was also going to be another huge leap of faith, but the whole journey is sidestepped.
It’s just one of many unconventional storytelling choices Chazelle makes, and while I am hardly qualified to question his decisions, I can say that they left at least one space-exploration buff walking out of First Man feeling as empty as the void between worlds.
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Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Whigham