First Man is a competent historical picture with some good cinematography throughout. A few issues hamper it from achieving true greatness, and it’s unlikely that this will be a film we recall very much in decades to come, but if you want to see a drama that explores the human cost behind the moon landing, First Man will serve adequately for that purpose.
The story of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 Moon-Landing is indeed, a dramatic and exciting story worthy of being known throughout the generations – how political forces, human ingenuity and sheer force of will allowed us to do what mankind had never thought possible before, and actually step on the moon. The central focus of the film is on Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his wife, Janet (Foy), cutting between Neil’s workaholic obsession with success on this mission, and Janet’s increased frustration with what feels like her husband drifting away from her towards a possibly fatal mission.
There’s a lot of Gosling moping and staring at the moon in the distance from his house…
Of the two lead actors, Claire Foy is far and beyond a better actress in this role than Ryan Gosling: complex and believable emotions can be seen in her eyes, mouth, and even the curl of her lip. Ryan Gosling is, in this instance as in many others, playing Ryan Gosling: a broody and melancholic man with deep pools of blue eyes who is taciturn and detached from those around him, displaying anti-social tendencies for the most part, but maintaining a slightly hidden sense of restrained humour under it all. In other words, I didn’t really buy him as actually being Neil Armstrong. I’m not sure how much of this is Gosling’s fault, however: the movie seemed to want to create a central thesis throughout that Armstrong was only driven to the moon to honour some strange personal promise to his deceased daughter. There’s a lot of Gosling moping and staring at the moon in the distance from his house, as though it has become a weird personal obsession with him.
All of this feels a bit like drama for drama’s sake, and seems to insert a dramatic plot that doesn’t really need to be there. Most historical accounts do mention that the actual Neil Armstrong was never much of a centre of attention kind of guy, and that his daughter’s death did affect him greatly, but it does feel like this strange subplot exists to create even more tension when, you know, landing a rocket on the moon is usually enough in that department.
First Man is almost better when the dialogue is completely removed…
Let me speak more of the positives though: First Man is almost better when the dialogue is completely removed, and there were shades of what felt like the best introspective parts of Terrance Malick films during the visual heavy scenes. Whenever Armstrong is in a vehicle, we get what feels like an almost first-person view of the action inside the cockpit, and it is expertly done. The slight hint of the Earth outside of the viewports is spellbinding, and with every shake and judder of explosive rocketry, we feel like we are along with Armstrong for the journey. These scenes are best viewed on a large screen, as we managed to achieve. Similarly, when the crew finally do land on the moon, the empty, cold, alien vastness of it all is expertly shot, and we really do feel this is some huge, spectacular moment unfolding.
On a technical level, you can also learn a lot from First Man if you want to understand how the Americans, in fact, did get to the stage of landing on the moon. From the various missions, to the key players involved, to what needed to be done and the pressure from the Soviets, all of that is fairly neatly introduced without becoming a huge exposition dump. I could imagine showing this film to students of different types: science students, film students, and history students. It feels like a good movie to help educated and enlighten.
Both of Damian Chazelle’s other major famous films, Whiplash and La La Land, will be remembered for many more years than First Man. It just is a movie that you enjoy watching once, and then move on from. However, I was fairly well entertained by this generally well-crafted movie, and there is little to really criticise or to praise excessively when it comes to most of it. Apollo 13 remains the premiere Space-Age topic film in my view, but this one did it a decent effort, it must be said.
First Man is just is a movie that you enjoy watching once, and then move on from. However, I was fairly well entertained by this generally well-crafted movie, and there is little to really criticise or to praise excessively when it comes to most of it.