FIRST MAN Review: 6 out of 10 (Distant and Cold--Like the Moon)
FIRST MAN is the latest film that archives the space race of the 1960s. Directed by Damien Chazelle and written by Josh Singer, it is based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, alongside Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas, and follows the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969.
This is essentially the Neil Armstrong movie. Having never met the man, it is unsure of how accurate of a portrayal it is. For those looking for the historicity of THE RIGHT STUFF or the wonder of OCTOBER SKY or even the emotion of HIDDEN FIGURES, they might look elsewhere. FIRST MAN gives a Neil Armstrong who is a dispassionate and driven man. And those are good descriptors, in turn, for the film itself. Chazelle seems a determined filmmaker here and Gosling offers a fantastic performance in which he is channeling…something… but the film itself lacks much in the way of empathy. As a result, the film seems much like the moon—cold and distant.
Gosling is strong here. Fans of his work will likely see more here to enjoy in the depth of his performance. Claire Foy is his equal as Armstrong’s wife Janet who stands by her man and plays the role that NASA needs her to as the good wife. Foy, in some ways, gives a balance to Gosling’s aloofness, but the limitations of the script only give her a few moments to shine with some more emotional scenes. The history of the space race itself is the other part of this film, beyond Armstrong’s personal life. With each chapter of the story, advances and setbacks occur. But even the journeys into space seem a bit dull, each with plenty of shaky camera and extreme closeups of Gosling’s eyeline. So much so that each sequence was impossible to identify from the last. In the end, FIRST MAN is a fairly grim affair. It may be what Chazelle intended, but it also lacks any value to this era that other films or a series like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON haven’t already offered. It isn’t a bad film, but it certainly makes itself hard to like.