Even casual students of space exploration know Neil Armstrong was not a terribly outgoing person. Famously reserved and private, the first man to walk on the moon never seemed to buy into the historical significance of his achievement. He was, to be frank, incredibly bland, and you only need to watch him for two minutes in any NASA press conference at the time to get a clear picture.
A feature film biopic of Armstrong was perhaps inevitable, but it was clearly going to be a tall order. And though plenty of credit goes to screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) for doing what he could to deliver an engrossing script and also to Ryan Gosling for bringing his talents to the role, First Man ends up falling short in large part because of the horribly uninteresting hero at its center. Picture all the tension and drama of 1996’s Apollo 13 but with an all-business, half-asleep robot leading the way.
For his part, Gosling throws his all into it, and he’s backed by a supremely gifted cast, including Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Janet, Jason Clark as fellow astronaut Ed White, and Kyle Chandler as Flight Crew Operations Director Deke Slayton… which brings us to the other issue that hampers First Man—its almost crippling esotericism.
If you know nothing about the whos, wheres, and whys of the space program in the mid-60s, you will be lost early on with little hope of recovery. Singer apparently either thinks audiences are well-versed in that history or believes that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s alienating and make First Man very “inside baseball”.
Director Damien Chazelle has certainly proven his talents as a director during his brief career. Who would have thought that a two-hour movie about a tyrannical jazz instructor could be as utterly compelling as Whiplash turned out to be? And though La La Land wasn’t quite worth all the hype bestowed upon it, it again demonstrated the director’s prowess behind the camera.
As with those, First Man benefits from Chazelle’s presence. The movie is at times exciting and nerve-wracking, and Chazelle brings us right into the throes of the action—from the opening sequence on board Armstrong’s harrowing 1961 X-15 rocket test flight through to his steps on the moon’s surface eight years later.
In addition, Chazelle—aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Battle of the Sexes)—gives First Man a distinctly retro feel that expertly takes us back to the mid-60s, as if at times we’re watching home movies from the era. The film is grainy, and the distinctly vintage hues help create the setting. And when we finally do land on the moon, the effect is breathtaking. It’s perhaps the best reenactment of the moon landing ever put on film.
Through it all, though, First Man can’t entirely shake the utterly monochrome nature of its protagonist. Certainly, Armstrong is entitled to his own unique personality, and no one will ever question his contributions to world history, but had First Man been instead re-tooled as Mission: Moon or something else that didn’t devote itself almost entirely to such an aloof and quiet man, it may well have been the complete package.