To say that First Man is a departure from Damien Chazelle’s usual work is an understatement. Chazelle, who directed Whiplash and La La Land, provides no musical inclinations for First Man. It’s also the first film he’s directed that isn’t written by him, it was written by Josh Singer, and it clearly shows. The film is extremely slow, is unable to balance character with plot, or even use tension to its advantage, and is only saved by the stunning visuals and Chazelle’s ability to make you feel like you’re getting to experience space, too.
The film opens with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flying just above Earth’s atmosphere. He’s an engineer who becomes an astronaut later on. Before he signs up with NASA, however, he’s coping with his young daughter’s brain tumor diagnosis, but it isn’t long after that she passes away. It’s something he never openly copes with nor ever seems to get over. Her death creates distance between his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and his sons. Work slowly begins to take up space when Neil signs up to be a part of Project Gemini with NASA. The years go by, but there isn’t much satisfactory build-up towards the moon landing flight. It’s one failed or successful launch after another, but it plays out like a checklist without much meat to the storyline or the characters.
First Man is technically and visually strong. The shots of the moon, the shuttle scenes, the terror of potentially being lost in space and the sheer beauty of seeing Earth from the moon’s surface are all outstanding and stunning to witness. The trip to the moon makes you feel like you’re the one who’s actually there and these are the scenes that should be seen in IMAX. There’s a lot of care and detail that goes into these scenes and rightly so. There’s never an excessive cacophony of noise or music in the background. In fact, the film tends to be on the quiet side and this is far more impactful when the final space trip takes place. It’s like being alone with your thoughts, stuck in solitude and able to fully take in something so extraordinary that words can’t even begin to describe.
While it succeeds in the technical filmmaking aspects, it fails in others. First Man is far more concerned with the work NASA does than with anything related to Neil’s family life, a subplot that is sorely neglected and is merely an afterthought for which is used to pass the time. As a character, Neil isn’t exactly interesting enough to carry an entire movie. The film attempts to balance being a biopic with being a historical drama, but the former is much weaker narratively. Characters come and go and we barely learn their names before they’re gone, footnotes in a shaky story and one that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.
The film barely scratches the surface of Armstrong as a person, what he might stand for, nor does his story have any semblance of emotion. Armstrong’s characterization falls flat and is left by the wayside and even though Ryan Gosling’s portrayal is true to Armstrong’s real life persona, it doesn’t help the film out at all. Even the film’s events are too calculated and feel like checkpoints before finally getting to the finale. Talented actors like Claire Foy and Jason Clarke are barely given any real material to work with. Foy gets a couple of bright spots to showcase her range, but she is very much the supportive wife who’s married to a man unwilling to engage with her very often.
First Man is over two hours long and it’s noticeable. It drags in many instances and can’t keep up an energetic pace, making it dull and tedious to get through. Surprisingly, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is barely even in the film and when he does appear maybe once or twice, it’s expected that his name alone will warrant recognition. Otherwise, he’s barely present to be considered a real character. Mostly, the movie has trouble balancing the toll it takes on astronauts with everything else and where there should be emotion, a sense of urgency, and some sense of pride, there is an emptiness. It glosses over all of the politics surrounding the journey towards the moon landing, the tension between civilian pilots and military pilots in the program, and avoids any major build-up of drama to the point where the only thing to feel is a great sense of detachment. First Man is the kind of film where you can take a quick bathroom break, come back and realize you’ve missed very little.
First Man has trouble balancing the toll it takes on astronauts with everything else and where there should be emotion, a sense of urgency, and some sense of pride, there is an emptiness.