Damien Chazelle’s First Man is two movies; one impeccably crafted and breathtaking while the other is dull and repetitive. The result is for the two and a half hours we find ourselves in a roller coaster of emotion. I vacillated between being enraptured and on the edge of my seat to, while not bored necessarily, but definitely not caring.
First Man is based on the biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. I haven’t read the book by James R. Hansen but I have to believe we learn more about Armstrong than anything Josh Singer, who wrote the script, seems interested in telling, To see Singer and Chazelle tell it, Neil Armstrong’s life consisted of grieving for his daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford) who died when she was four of a brain tumor; and getting to the Moon.
Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is a taciturn, steely-eyed, stoic man who keeps his emotions to himself. In a way, it’s an act of incredible bravery to make the focus of a story about the first astronauts to the Moon about the least expressive one. If you’re looking for an actor to portray elusive, enigmatic, and unexpressive, then Gosling is your man. Though I wish he wasn’t.
First Man is essentially two movies. Armstrong, the man, is the first movie. Arguably it’s the least interesting. But the second movie is where the real show is at. Chazelle has spared no expense, which at a reported budget of just under sixty million dollars is paltry by modern Hollywood standards. First Man despite its faults is so well crafted from a production design standpoint it borders on wizardry.
We follow the space program, almost from its infancy; from Gemini 1 to Apollo 11. Chazelle and Linus Sandgren, the cinematographer, allow an intimacy in the cockpit. The claustrophobia is visceral and palpable. Rarely has a film made us empathize with a historic act of bravery and lunacy so completely. It helps to underline the amount of sheer fortitude to keep a level head while you are both making history and recording it all for science.
Tom Cross, the editor, pulls off a feat of making much of the two and half hours barely noticeable. Cross and Sandgren combine their talents, along with the composer Justin Hurwitz, to create a scene of stunning anticipatory wonder. I have seen my fair share of movies and documentaries about Apollo 11 but the blast off in First Man raises the bar for likely a whole generation of film-goers and filmmakers.
It reminded me of the scene in Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Woman In The Moon. Lang uses melodrama as an excuse to give us a spectacle. The likes of which, many at the time had never seen. Lang builds the launching of the rocket in a scene that seems to go on eternally, with each passing second more and more climactic. Until finally it lifts off, the music swells, and the crowd cheers.
Chazelle and company have no cheering crowds but they do just as good a job. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I was enthralled by the sheer majesty and artistry as Hurwitz’s score dominated the theater while just under it Phill Barrie, the sound editor, uses the groans of wrenching steel, the flames from the exhaust, a cacophony of exhilarating sound demonstrating the euphoric power of sheer spectacle of the movies.
I feel as if I should simply sit and list the names of the countless men and women who brought First Man to life. The sound design is exquisite, the art and production design is pristine, the costume departments choices were vivid-everything. It’s a damn masterpiece.
Or at least it would be, if not for the characters. Again, I haven’t read the book and I have no doubt that the loss of Armstrong’s daughter haunted him throughout his life. But I couldn’t help but wonder how Janet, Armstrong’s first wife, felt about the loss of her daughter as well.
In the beginning, First Man appears to be a daring departure. A big studio Hollywood docudrama that shelves the spectacle and instead explores grief. Chazelle opens with Armstrong in the cockpit of a jet as he flies above the clouds. It is exhilarating as Cross, Hurwitz, and Sandgren, give us a taste of what we can expect. But then Chazelle cuts to Armstrong’s home. We see he and Janet caring for their sick daughter.
We cut to a dimly lit sterile room where Karen is strapped to a gurney. A giant monolithic drill hovers above her. It seems like something from a science fiction pulp magazine. It isn’t. It’s modern medicine. Armstrong, an engineer, pours over his notes, not of his flight into the stratosphere, but the notes the doctors have given him. He solves problems and fixes things. But he can’t solve his daughter’s tumor.
The first thirty minutes or so are pure cinema. Chazelle is a talented and skilled craftsman and his abilities are on full display. But Gosling is wooden on a good day and here he seems like a robotic refugee trying to fit in amongst the Hu-Mans. His normally closed lipped and laser like intense stare usually elevate whatever role he’s in. Here though, Chazelle turns what is meant to be an enigmatic and haunted man into a boring one note jerk.
Foy has already turned in a marvelous performance in this year’s stellar Unsane. Whereas Steven Soderbergh gave Foy a seemingly impossible range of emotions which she captured perfectly and expertly; Chazelle and Singer have her as merely the wife. She has a couple of nice moments, such as when she all but demands Neil say goodbye to his sons before he goes to the Moon.
Kyle Chandler as Deke Skelton, one of the original Mercury Seven, and who is essentially the Chief of Astronauts, is reliable as always. Chandler is rapidly becoming this generation’s answer to Kevin Costner. Character actors are a dying breed. But actors like Chandler remind us why they are a gift to filmmakers. Why waste a line of pointless exposition or shoot a needless scene to illustrate who the character is? When all you need is the type. It’s a shortcut both for the filmmakers and the audience and it cuts down on the clutter. I can’t help but smile and relax a little whenever I see Chandler show up on screen.
First Man may be a technical and cinematic marvel but when it comes to Armstrong or any of the characters, no matter the talent involved, it stumbles. The effects may leave the likes of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in the dust. But I can’t help but feel as if we underestimate the value of an actor who can express recognizable human emotion. Take a more recent example, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson contain more humanity in a press junket than the majority of the scenes between the Hu-Mans in First Man.
I admired Chazelle’s attempt to subvert audience expectations, my own included, and deeply loved the clear love and joy of space exploration. It takes a brave soul to lure people into a theater with a promise of a rousing historical reenactment of a great human achievement, and instead have it be a thesis on grief. But that’s just the thing, it’s a shallow exploration of grief.
Armstrong never discusses Karen’s life or death with anyone, including his wife Janet. What Chazelle is looking at isn’t grief so much as an obsession. Even that’s not true because when Armstrong is at NASA, Karen is the furthest thing from his mind. Some of you may be yelling, “That’s the point!” To which I say, “I know! It’s still dull in its single mindedness.”
Someone once asked Gene Siskel how he judged a movie was worth seeing. “Is this film more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch?” First Man transports us to the sixties and revels in the attention to detail. Chazelle and company make it known the toe curling dangers these brave men and women were facing in their quest to push mankind forward; just sixty years after we had mastered flight.
But when it’s actually about the individual people I half hoped that Gosling would break character. Yes, I’ll say it. Seeing Ryan Gosling ordering a ham on rye with a side of pickles and a small coffee-two creams-no sugar; is preferable to the slice of life scenes in First Man. Still, I can’t in good conscious tell you not to see First Man. The artistry and craftsmanship is too great to not see it as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen. Just know that when First Man switches back to the Armstrong household, that’s a perfect time to use the bathroom. You’re welcome.