“First Man,” the latest feature from Academy Award winning director Damien Chazelle, the acclaimed auteur behind “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” has all the makings of another Oscar-winning smash hit. Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”) stars as Neil Armstrong in a subdued performance that is designed to mirror Armstrong’s real-life persona, which came off as slightly disconnected from other people and everything that was happening around him. Claire Foy (“The Crown”) is also featured in a half-baked role as Armstrong’s wife, who slowly grows to hate the space program and the moon mission. Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”), Jason Clarke (“Terminator Genesis”) and Kyle Chandler (“Manchester by the Sea”) round out the cast, portraying some of the other important astronauts of the era, with Stoll’s depiction of Buzz Aldrin being one of the few sources of comedic relief in the film.
“First Man” is a high-quality production, with everything from the acting to the production design to the editing resembling the kind of crowd-pleasing critical darling that Chazelle has become known for. Unlike his previous work though, there’s something missing from the center of “First Man” that can’t quite be placed. Forgoing any kind of “rah rah America!” depiction of the moon landing or a wide-view period piece of the times in which these events occurred, “First Man” focuses in on Neil Armstrong the man as much as it possibly can. Anything that isn’t directly related to Armstrong’s personal arc has largely been jettisoned, with his relationship to his wife being the only relationship that is developed at all throughout the movie. What he thought of Buzz Aldrin, the loss of the men who were supposed to be on Apollo 1 or the public’s views of the NASA space program is hard to glean from the story told in the film. In parts “Apollo 13” and in parts “Whiplash,” like much of Chazelle’s work, “First Man” is obsessed with the personal and private pain that someone is willing to take on in order to succeed at a goal that others see as attainable. Gosling’s work here is admirable in its attempt to give an accurate depiction of Armstrong, but what it lacks is the nuance to answer the most important question posed in the film: Why go to the moon at all? In the context of “First Man” it doesn’t really matter what the answer is for anyone but Neil Armstrong, but when the film ends it’s still fairly unclear. Much is made of the loss of Armstrong’s daughter to cancer and how that has caused him to seclude himself from many of his friends and family, but the movie never does quite enough to connect the dots all the way between that and the moon landing.
The overall production is as impressive as any space movie in the last decade, and because of that “First Man” is sure to take home a few trophies this winter in the technically categories, if not in anything else. The scenes of takeoff and of the astronauts training to survive in space are thrilling and as claustrophobic as one would expect, putting the audience as close as can be to the action. The extreme close-ups matched with constant shaky camera work creates a relentless pace in many of these sequences that are among the most thrilling that can be experienced in the theater this year. All that being said, a lot of the more technical scenes in which Armstrong or another astronaut have to solve some kind of problem by pressing buttons really fast and switching back and forth a number of switches are very poorly explained, and audiences may find themselves wondering why Gosling looks so constipated and what in the world is going on.
“First Man” clearly sees itself as an on-brand continuation of Chazelle’s win streak, but while the movie is certainly very good, it falls just short of being great. The ending doesn’t work on an emotional level; the storyline is almost too hyper-focused to be powerful, and it’s just not that easy to connect with the character of Neil Armstrong. “First Man” has been attacked by both the left and the right for various political views they claim the film takes, but in the end it’s the lack of a viewpoint that is more the problem here. “First Man” has a lot to show you, and it has a lot that’s designed to wow you. What it doesn’t have is much to say.