First Man (2018)
Experience the impossible journey to the Moon.
Courage is defined by choice. Simply put, being brave when you have no choice is a different beast than being brave when you have the option not to. Facing danger when you have no other avenue is one thing, but stepping into the breach when you are free to sit this one out is another thing entirely. Perhaps that’s the definition of real heroism — but that’s an argument beyond the scope of a simple film review.
I will say, though, with the above in mind, that it is downright strange that in First Man, lauded director Damien Chazelle’s account of Neil Armstrong’s early career as an astronaut, our protagonist makes almost no choices at all — at least, none of consequence. As written by Josh Singer, working from the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, and played by an incredibly understated Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine (2010), Armstrong is a man who is exceptionally good at following orders. He outright excels at doing what he’s told. He sets altitude records because he’s told to. He joins NASA’s early ’60s Gemini space program and it’s successor, the Apollo program, because he’s told to. He is the titular first man to walk on the Moon because, in one of countless under-dramatized scenes, he’s told that he’s been selected for the job. He even has a potentially final conversation with his kids just prior to the Apollo 11 mission because … his wife (Claire Foy, struggling with a thankless part) told him to.
Never at any point is the possibility raised that Armstrong might not do what is expected of him, that he feels any reticence or even fear. That might be true of the man’s character and, yes, with the benefit of hindsight we know exactly how things played out in real life, so the broad strokes of the plot here are set in stone, but without choice, or at least the illusion of choice, there can be no drama — and the word for stories without drama is boring.
And that is First Man’s cardinal — but not only — sin: it manages to make humanity’s first journey to the moon, an undertaking touted by the film’s own marketing campaign as ‘the most dangerous mission ever attempted,’ a total yawn. Watching the film, it seems that Chazelle has no interest in the challenges and achievements of the space race, but is rather concerned with Armstrong’s inner life instead.
Which is all well and good, except that Armstrong, in the film and, by all accounts, in real life, is not a reflective man. He’s self-effacing, quiet, pragmatic, and largely unflappable. He’s not a man in touch with his feelings, and certainly not one to act out on them in any case. He’s an engineer and pilot that attacks problems diligently and methodically, even when the problem is the tumor that will take the life of his two-year-old daughter; Chazelle frames this awful event, which actually took place, as Armstrong’s defining wound. But, it does not ring true.
Very little does in First Man. Chazelle keeps the focus so firmly on Gosling’s Armstrong that every other character and actor gets pretty short shrift, including Foy and the impressive ensemble — Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Luka Haas, Shea Whigham, Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry and more — who portray Armstrong’s fellow astronauts. If you’re across the history of space travel — and you should be — you’ll know who they’re supposed to be playing. If you’re not, you’re in for a tough time — with a few rare exceptions, First Man is not interested in bringing you up to speed.
The film’s disinterest on what might ostensibly be its principal concern extends to its camera work and framing, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, Chazelle’s previous film) employing a handheld, shaky style during the film’s space flight scenes that does wonders when it comes to immersing the viewer in the stress, heat and confusion of the moment — at the cost of visual information, narrative clarity, and grandeur.
Ultimately, First Man is a puzzling cinematic artifact. It’s difficult to grasp what the overall aim was here, with the handling of the material so at odds with its inherent strengths. It doesn’t work as a historical account, it doesn’t work as a drama — look, it just doesn’t work.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson