By Chic DiCiccio
“First Man” begins with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) zipping through the clouds in the X-15 experimental aircraft. Armstrong looks up and sees the vastness of space, yet nearly every second of this intense, white-knuckled opening sequence feels claustrophobic. It gets more unbearable as each second passes with the camera only holding still long enough to focus on Armstrong’s wide-open eyes.
That is how director Damien Chazelle chose to start “First Man” and it perfectly sets up the professional demeanor that Neil Armstrong held for his entire piloting career.
However, once Armstrong is on the ground, his remote personality leads to conflict with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and distance from his fellow pilots. Apparently, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer applied Armstrong’s traits to their film as well, since it’s all procedure, grief and elbow grease with exactly zero moments of joy. It’s shot beautifully by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, directed to technical perfection by Chazelle, and Gosling’s quiet, subdued performance drives the film, but it’s sorely lacking in any emotion other than sadness.
The majority of the movie takes place between Armstrong’s start with NASA in 1962 and the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. After a family tragedy, Neil, now-pregnant Janet and their son move to Houston to work with the burgeoning space program. The cast of actors portraying the various real-life people is literally a who’s who of male character actors, with Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll and Jason Clarke as the stand outs.
The training and a handful of the Gemini and Apollo missions are touched on with the Apollo 1 testing tragedy as a turning point. By this point in the movie, “First Man” has hammered home that Armstrong does not handle human loss in a healthy way. Gosling does an excellent job conveying his inner turmoil and struggle simply with silence and the look on his face. There can be no doubt that he’s in agony, but he never lets any of it show to anyone.
The problem with “First Man” is the choice to stay true to Armstrong’s actual persona. The main character only shows emotion once or twice and it keeps the entire movie at arm’s length. It’s a catch-22 that actually is a detriment to other characters and their development, since we only see everything through Armstrong’s eyes.
That cold approach to the story absolutely neuters Foy’s performance as Janet. She becomes a one note moment of clarity for Neil and serves the movie only to scold him for not being present. It’s a horribly written role and there’s nowhere for her to go with it.
That being said, once Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) climb into the Apollo 11 module, “First Man” is literally and figuratively out of this world.
There have been rocket launches in movies before, but none have made you feel part of it like this.
The metal screams, fire and smoke shoots everywhere, and the sound is so intense that it rumbles your seat.
“First Man” becomes almost a Kubrick-like experience once Armstrong and Aldrin are on the moon. There is very little sound and when Justin Hurwitz’s score kicks in, it hits all the right notes and perfectly conveys the overwhelming scope of what these men have done.
But that’s it. “First Man” doesn’t celebrate it. A “rah-rah-go Team America” scene wouldn’t fit, but the movie makes the landing a “thank goodness that’s done” moment instead of a momentous one.