First Man Review
There’s a shot close to the end of First Man (no spoiler - because history) where Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is looking back past the camera onto the wide expanse of the moon’s surface and the endless black horizon above, the glory of the universe seen reflecting on his helmet visor. Unintentionally it captures everything good and bad about this space journey biopic: the mind-boggling moment of standing on another planet, and the mostly vacant space where Ryan Gosling’s emotions should be.
Those two opposing sides are jostling for attention throughout and Damien Chazelle never really settles on whether he’s telling a human or technical drama. Transporting over 500,000 pounds of machinery out of our atmosphere and onto the moon is an absolutely bonkers concept when you take a step back to take it all in. Chazelle captures some of that achievement in his film but never finds a way into the heart of the man who made that giant leap for mankind back in 1969.
It is so often the case that when a film takes a short cut into a tragedy within only a few minutes of opening it struggles to find the depth of meaning behind it. First Man falls into that trap shortly after beginning its story in 1961, eight years before the Apollo 11 flew to the big rock in the sky. Chazelle sends us hurtling into the stratosphere in Armstrong’s air force plane right from the off, while back on Earth the future astronaut's toddler daughter dies from a malignant tumour, leaving he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) devastated.
Armstrong buries his emotions along with his child and throws himself into his work. He applies for, and is accepted onto, the Gemini program that is desperately trying to beat the Russians in the race to the moon. It's here he trains to become an astronaut alongside the likes of Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit). The program is led by Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) who reports to NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ciarán Hinds).
Gosling plays Armstrong as a man of few words, who despite being fuelled to fly to the moon by the many personal tragedies in his life, doesn’t open up to reveal his feelings. Gosling has never been an actor with great range which is why his best performances have been for characters with a limited range of expression (see Drive and Only God Forgives). The problem here is that Chazelle’s film requires an actor that can hide his emotion while still being able to reveal it with small physical gestures. In First Man, Gosling remains a blank canvas that is impossible to read and it renders the personal and family drama flat and uninvolving.
Armstrong’s relationship with Janet becomes increasingly distant the closer he gets to lift-off. The internalised grief that is supposed to be burning inside of Armstrong is almost impossible to connect with through Gosling’s empty eyes and his relationship with his wife is little more than an afterthought. Claire Foy is one of the best actresses around at the moment but there is little or no momentum to her story and she feels sorely wasted. Back at NASA, a number of crew members are accidentally killed during the testing stage and we hear the growing concern about the value and cost of the mission from Congress and the public (the use of Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey On the Moon" is a nice touch).
First Man comes to life almost every time we step inside the cockpit of an aircraft or rocket. It is here you realise the insanity of the mission these men were about to undertake, strapped into cramped compartments pointing upwards towards the sky before being sent hurtling into space at seven miles per second. The rattling and shaking of the rocket architecture is viscerally felt and you can only admire how much faith these men placed in the engineering while remaining so composed.
Throughout the film DoP Linus Sandgren switches between grainy 16mm and 35mm stock on the ground, before finally switching up to IMAX 70mm once Armstrong and Aldrin finally land on the moon. Not all of Sandgren’s lensing is aesthetically pleasing as much of the film features handheld shots pulled into full-on close-ups of the characters' faces. It's the sort of intimacy that might have been more effective if the relationships between crew members weren't so lightly drawn and Armstrong’s home life was written with more depth.
The moon landing is one of the most famous stories in the history of mankind so Chazelle must be commended on how fresh he makes the moment feel. Justin Hurwitz’s vibrant score adds a sense of discovery and wonder and although it is a long time coming, the time spent on the Luna surface carries considerable emotional weight. It adds to the many impressive technical achievements of Chazelle’s film but it is just a shame the humanity of First Man is mostly weightless.
First Man opens nationwide in UK cinemas on October 12th.