In his youth, before he passed his driving test, Neil Armstrong earned his pilot’s license. Unlike most teenagers of his age, his fascination for flying far surpassed his interest in anything else, including having a girlfriend or driving cars. While that small nugget isn’t included in director Damien Chazelle’s epic drama First Man, it is one of the many telling characteristics from the biographical book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen upon which the film is based. But Josh Singer’s adapted screenplay uses plenty more character revealing traits from the book, eventually disclosing many things about a man and his life we thought we knew but didn’t.
Beginning in 1961 with an emotionally overwhelming opening sequence, Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot for a hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft; an X-15. He’s gathering critical data for future human spaceflight, and it’s a roller coaster of a ride to the extreme. Director Chazelle puts us right inside the shaky cockpit and sets the tone for how the rest of the film will display events – it’s all from the point-of-view of Armstrong; we see what he sees. By using this approach, the movie’s style robs the widescreen of any breathtaking, establishing panoramic shots. Instead, images of the sky, of space, and eventually even the moon are as Armstrong sees them; through restrictive small windows and helmets.
As portrayed by Gosling, Armstrong tends to be a man of few words, and when he does speak what he says is carefully chosen. One evening at the family dinner table, Armstrong receives that all-important congratulatory call telling him he’s been accepted by NASA to be an astronaut for the Gemini program. He casually tells his wife, as if in passing, “I got it,” then carries on eating. And later, when co-astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) openly gives an unwanted, critical opinion of another astronaut and of the program itself, he ends with, “I’m only saying what everyone is thinking.” “Maybe you shouldn’t,” responds Armstrong.
Instead, the passion in the Armstrong household comes from the astronaut’s wife, his first, Janet Shearon (Claire Foy). At one point, Janet tells a fellow astronaut’s wife, “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.” But her life and her marriage to an American astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programs are anything but normal. While Armstrong keeps his feelings mostly contained, Janet lets them explode. She’s the much needed emotional arm of the film. When during a life or death moment in the program, NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure a nervous Janet that NASA has everything under control, she’s not having it. “You’re a bunch of guys making models out of balsa wood!” she angrily declares. “You don’t have anything under control.”
While there’s much to admire in First Man – Claire Foy’s performance and all of the home-based family exchanges among them – there’s a dullness that slowly creeps in during the middle act, undermining what initially promised to be a fascinating ride.
The sense of what it was like to be seated in the capsule, cramped, confined, surrounded by knobs, dials, and switches with only the slimmest of views of the outside world is successfully conveyed. In such a claustrophobic setting, lift-off has to be a terrifying experience; you may never see space travel in quite the same way again. But long scenes of Gosling’s Armstrong gazing thoughtfully off comes across as playing someone who’s simply a blank slate. Clearly, that’s not Armstrong, but Gosling can’t convincingly express a sense of inner turmoil; it’s just a stare.
Combined with the director’s carefully crafted style of using lengthy pauses to establish settings, ultimately the film’s overall atmosphere feels too detached; it’s going to test the patience of mainstream audiences. For some, it may never take off. By always looking at things from within, the film’s restrained style misses out on creating any sense of inspiration, the kind that the story of the first man to walk on the moon requires. It’s missing a sense of awe.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 138 Minutes