A Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling as the first man on the moon from the director of Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) sounds like a perfect awards season release. It is competently directed and acted, but the problem with the unfortunately titled First Man is that if you have seen one movie about NASA struggling to get their astronauts into space and back home safely, you’ve seen em all. The Right Stuff (1983), Apollo 13 (1995), and Gravity (2013) have all told the same story with more riveting suspense. First Man adds nothing new to the formula.
The film opens up with an image of a man in dark shadows wearing a space suit in a tight shuttle with the sounds of heavy breathing. It is Neil Armstrong and he is testing a vehicle to see if it can handle leaving Earth’s atmosphere and come back safely. The sequence contains the usual amount of suspense as it would in any other films opening scene. Nothing special and that is the gist of First Man it suffers from the ‘been-there-done-that’ syndrome too much to make anything about it stand out.
This is the first film Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle has directed that is not revolving around music and is based on a true story. Perhaps Chazelle should stick to singing fiction. Throughout its two hour and twenty-minute runtime, First Man ranges from OK to good, never exceeding expectations. The cinematography is jumpy for no reason with a lot of close-ups, handheld, and steady cam shots with quick cuts that make the film seem jarring even when they are just simple scenes of Armstrong talking to his family and playing with his children. This seemed unnecessary. Even in the space sequences, the images were too choppy and repetitive. There is way too much time with just a camera shaking at a window with nothing but darkness on the other side. The lighting scheme appeared to be heavily inspired by Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography on Steven Spielberg’s films with a lot of overexposed lighting. This made First Man more distracting than immersive.
The film is based on the book First Man which is Armstrong’s biography so because of that no characters except for Neil Armstrong and his wife (played by Claire Foy) get any development whatsoever. If you want to learn more about Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins look elsewhere. This movie focuses on the relationship between Armstrong and his family, who lost a daughter at a very young age. There are some tender moments between him and his wife as well as a lot of mundane domestic arguments between them as they bicker about the risks of his job and if he will make it home. These moments are good but never as moving and emotionally engaging as they should be.
The final shot is a basic yet powerful image that reinforces to the audience that First Man is a love story first and foremost. It hits all the key points you would expect it to. The moon landing itself is certainly the finest and most dramatic part of the film. It mentions how the United States was losing the Cold War to the Soviets and needed to do something drastic to make an impact. It shows President Kennedy’s influential speech, it hits all the items on the checklist of a Neil Armstrong movie, it just never makes them as impressive and awe-inspiring as they should have been. One final note, they do show shots of the American flag, just never planted on the ground on the surface of the moon. I do not think that makes or breaks First Man and all of the controversy surrounding the flag is really just ridiculous.
See First Man if you are really in the mood for a film about Neil Armstrong, or if you love Ryan Gosling. Otherwise, check out The Right Stuff (1983) a more informative and entertaining true story about NASA.