“First Man” teases a look at what you would assume to be one of the most interesting men in American History. He earned a pilot’s license before he had a drivers license, was a talented engineer, flew hundreds of different aircraft, many of which were experimental, survived multiple crash landings, and all of this occurred before he became the first man to step on the Moon. But for these many accomplishments, and the work NASA put into their impossible task, this 140+ minute film feels surprisingly tedious.
The screenplay was written by Josh Singer (who also wrote “The Post” and “Spotlight”) and was adapted from the only official biography on Neil Armstrong penned by James R. Hansen. Hansen spent a number of years learning who Neil was and the book covers everything from his youth up through the years following his moon landing. The film chooses to focus on the events that lead directly to and including, the moon landing, but not much else. What’s surprising is how the movie chooses to tell his story under a foreboding cloud of death. It starts with the loss of his 2-year-old daughter to brain cancer and punctuates each following act, with the death of friends or associates. It would make sense to address human mortality, and our smallness in the universe in a film such as this, but that’s not the experience we have. Ryan Gosling gives a very good performance as Neil Armstrong, but unless you knew the man himself, it’s difficult to say if it’s accurate or not. This version of Neil isn’t very interesting. He’s a man of few words, seems to repress all emotions, and is generally an anti-social bore. The tendency of many films is to turn our heroes into larger than life icons, but “First Man” seems intent to do the extreme opposite. It’s hard to believe that someone who accomplished so much had so little to say. Conversely, if the film is an accurate portrayal of the man, then his famous “Small Step” line feels equally unlikely.
Director Damien Chazelle has crafted a number of amazing films over the past few years. Here it is obvious he is stretching his legs, trying something different. Everything involving the NASA program, and the actual moon voyage, are all brilliant, even if he does lean too heavily on Kubrick’s “2001” imagery at times. (Perhaps it’s an in-joke considering Kubrick’s rumored involvement with the “faked moon landing footage”) But his choices for all the personal, family scenes, falter. Shot almost entirely on handheld cameras, at kid-level height, he tries to invoke a combined home-movie nostalgia mixed with a sense of awe. It almost works in a few moments, but the sustained shakey-cam and uncomfortable close-up faces just make the experience tiring. There’s zero passion between Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, their two boys are annoying, and there’s just not much to care about. At one point Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) remarks to a friend how she married Neil because she hoped their life wouldn’t be so adventurous. (The irony is painful)
“First Man” suffers from not knowing what it wants to be outside of obvious Oscar Bait. All of the talent involved is top notch, but it is unequal to match the sum of all its parts. The death of his daughter is shoehorned in to create emotion and drive where apparently there is none. What truly drove this man to accomplish all he did? Was it his thirst for adventure? Was he passively suicidal? The film answers none of these questions. Instead, it tries to tug at our heartstrings with a final scene where he drops a personal item into a crater on the moon, conjuring memories of the end of “Titanic.” Oddly, this defining moment has zero proof behind it and is instead pure speculation on behalf of Singer and Hansen.