Many people know about Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, however they did not know much about the man Armstrong really was. In First Man, director Damien Chazelle attempts to tell that narrative and show the audience what it was like to be Armstrong at the height of his fame. There were many trying times in Armstrong’s life that he went through before he became the first man to land on the moon. However, he was quite quiet and soft-spoken, so there was much to learn from the film’s first half and the better part of the film, in my opinion.
The film’s opening is one that gets you hooked. It’s 1961 and Armstrong is test piloting an X-15 rocket plane when it begins to bounce off the atmosphere. In an instant, your thrust into the dangerousness of space travel. It was the first time in a film (that wasn’t part of the horror genre) that I was genuinely frightened. The sound, the visual, the up close shots of sheer panic really make for a panicked experience. The opening sequence was so well done that I found myself holding my breath, wondering just when I could take a deep breath of relief again. It put me on edge in a way I was not expecting, and quite frankly, I was hoping the rest of the film would be able to evoke the same kind of raw emotions as we journeyed through Armstrong’s life. However, despite a few other scenes that involve the trauma and loss experienced by the Armstrong family and the disastrous events of the Apollo 1 mission – the rest of the film felt flat.
While the film had some great thematic elements (specifically the moments in space), but while watching it the same things that were felt toward the beginning and end of the film, did not span across the film’s entirety. In fact, the middle of the film felt quite bland in retrospect and because of this, the film seemed much longer than it really was. Of course, this does not take away from the performances by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. The pair were utterly believable in their respective roles as Neil and Janet, bringing the right amount of sentiment to each. The scenes that the pair share are some of the film’s best, but there are unfortunately too few of them. It was very evident that both researched their roles and became in tune with the people they were portraying, however this was not enough to give the film the much needed boost it required.
Now, by no means is First Man a bad film, but it does suffer from some missteps. The most tragic moment of Armstrong’s life up to that point (his young daughter fighting a brain tumour), is set up to frame the film and Armstrong’s journey, but it is not explored nearly enough. As this is ultimately the basis in for the majority of the story and whether or not it will affect Armstrong’s ability to be a civilian astronaut in America’s greatest space mission of its time, it would have been poignant to see more from this – the effect on him was clear, but also the effect on his other children and first wife, Janet, is almost non-existent. With actors the calibre of Gosling and Foy, at times, they ultimately seemed wasted. While there are some powerfully poignant scenes charged with emotion, the rest of the film maintains an even keel of dark coldness that may be fit for space, but it certainly didn’t work in First Man as a whole.
Much like Chazelle’s past films Whiplash and La La Land, the visuals that are relied upon are well-done and eye catching. However, whereas the latter films do not seem to solely rely on the visual aesthetics, First Man does. The cinematography and technical mastery displayed in First Man almost serves to be a crutch and for the brunt of the film, seems to carry the brunt of the film, it seems to be used in an attempt to detract from the general dryness of the film. Simply put, there was just a lot about this film that were blah. Personally, I believe First Man suffered from the fact that it was telling a story that thousands of people already know – well, at least they know most of it (particularly the ending). Chazelle does his best with First Man under the circumstances, but truth be told, it was film in which I was expecting much more.
First Man is now screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and will blast off into North American theaters on October 12.