Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling have teamed up again for their latest film, the Georgia-filmed First Man, which releases in theaters today. First Man tells the iconic story of the first manned mission to the moon, with a focus on Neil Armstong’s life for roughly a decade leading up to the historic Apollo 11 flight. Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film takes an intimate look at Armstrong, his family, and those closest around him – and the emotional impact of the journey leading of up to one of the most dangerous missions in history.
Let me start off by saying that I had really high expectations going into this film. I was a huge fan of last year’s La La Land which not only won Chazelle an Oscar for best Director, but the film also won an additional 5 Oscars as well as 8 other nominations – including a nomination for Gosling for Best Actor. The combination of Chazelle and Gosling was already a proven success, and when you add in a film based on mankind’s first trip to the moon – well, simply put you expect nothing but magic.
So how did First Man live up to those expectations? I enjoyed it as a whole, but I have some pretty large problems with it. It’s a solid film, beautifully shot, solidly acted… but also incredibly slow, rather boring, and just subdued. After I left the screening, I was trying to find the best way to describe my emotions throughout the film, and the one word I kept circling back to was “level”. There was a lack of climax in this film, there was sadness (with the loss of Armstrong’s daughter as well as numerous colleges throughout the Gemini and Apollo missions) and there was very mellow/strained emotion that you experienced as a viewer throughout a large portion of the film. But any moments of happiness just felt dull and lackluster in comparison.
It’s been said that Armstrong was a rather boring fellow, and if that’s the case, then the film captured that rather well. Gosling certainly did a fine job in the role. His ability to convey magnitudes of emotion with minimal facial movements is rather extraordinary, and he did an incredible job at capturing the continual struggle that Armstrong had with his emotions – which seemed to be a real driving force for Armstrong’s work – which of course caused a considerable amount of stress on his marriage to Janet (played by Claire Foy). Foy did a fantastic job here as well, and honestly, I think a film from her perspective might have actually been more interesting to me. She was an amazing woman, who had a lot to deal with – without a lot of help from husband – as far as the film portrayed.
Visually, this film is superb. Audibly, this film does an incredible job at capturing the different environments and blending history rather perfectly into this adaptation of one of mankind’s most history moments. In fact, the audio you hear from Armstrong and Aldrin’s space walk in the film – was the actual audio recorded from the actual space walk on July 16, 1969. Overall, the caliber of work in the film – from the acting to the directing to the sound production, set design and special effects – it’s all rather perfect in my eyes. It’s just the cadence of the film and the writing that just didn’t match the excitement and the emotions on all levels of this decade of activity. Perhaps it’s because the story is being told through Armstrong’s eyes, and he’s simply not the most interesting character in which to tell the story through… but he certainly is history’s most iconic astronaut, and it certainly is worth knowing his story.
I’m a history and science geek, I’m rather passionate about mankind’s travels and missions into the unknown, and I can’t imagine the fear and excitement of being at the forefront of those explorations… But I would have liked to have more of a glimpse into those emotions through this film.
To sum it up, First Man is a good film. It’s just not a great film.