Nearly 50 years ago, the astonishing feat of landing two men on the moon was achieved through ingenuity, intelligence, and ambition. Decades later, director Damien Chazelle has compiled the point-form notes version of that ingenuity and combined it with glazed-over grief and some particularly biopic-y scraps of footage that prove astronauts had long-suffering wives. First Man is a noble attempt to capture it all, but it skims the surface of the science, struggles to get under its subject’s skin, and reduces supporting players to cardboard cutouts.
There are multiple approaches to the material being taken here and Chazelle clunkily cobbles them together without ever finding the right configuration. This is the story of super stoic Neil Armstrong (super stoic Ryan Gosling), who lost his young daughter to cancer and had his heart ripped out of his chest as a result. The movie’s early moments between father and child are the most moving of the entire experience, tender and haunting in their seeming simplicity.
But Chazelle has a lot of narrative ground to go over and he moves on from Neil’s tragedy quickly, shifting his attention to the protagonist’s career, which involves a new job as an astronaut in NASA’s manned space flight program. The idea here is that this is how Neil dealt with his personal loss, by pouring himself into his work, so the movie follows suit.
It’s a fine choice in how it mirrors the hero’s journey, but Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer now begin filling a long, arduous checklist of exposition. In attempting to convey Neil’s pent-up emotional state, the movie becomes an impersonal examination of key dates in NASA’s history, charting the trajectory of the Gemini project and how it segued into the Apollo missions.
The reenactments of the space flights are certainly magnificent, though. Chazelle clearly communicates the claustrophobia of being strapped inside such a small capsule and he enjoys depicting the vulnerabilities of the machinery and surrounding structures. There’s a palpable sense of fear tangled up in the unknown, which is impressive for a movie recreating such widely known events.
Stunning effects work that expertly matches the grainy, period-specific photography helps to craft a convincing portrait of life beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. These moments are beautiful and frightening and almost unbelievably realistic. They're another fine example of Chazelle’s directorial dedication, his thirst for technical perfection at all costs, but it doesn’t stop the dramatic engine from sputtering.
In the midst of the stirring space sequences, there’s a rush to cover all the bases, to juxtapose Neil’s level-headedness against Buzz Aldrin’s (Corey Stoll) cocky swagger, to establish the political and public perception of the space race’s costly dangers, and to remind us that Neil actually has real emotions; he just refuses to show them.
One of the movie’s biggest challenges turns out to be what to do with the hapless wife roles. Singer couldn’t write the parts more thanklessly, as if he was penning their scenes under duress, fulfilling a sort of misguided duty. They’re an obligation he can’t ignore, but he sure doesn’t know how to handle them.
Claire Foy delivers an occasionally bristling performance as Janet, who is stuck raising the children and sitting around (either at their pool or by a radio, depending on the situation) while Neil galivants about in a spacesuit. She has a couple moments punctuated by understandably angry outbursts and a few longing looks into her husband’s eyes and the rest is just filler, a limp tossing of the bone to one of the only women in this story.
Fellow astronaut and neighbour Ed White (Jason Clarke) allows for another female character to appear, his wife Patricia (Olivia Hamilton), who basically exists on screen so that Janet has someone to talk to about the trials and tribulations of being married to a man with such a death-defying occupation.
All of this blandly lands First Man in familiar biopic territory, where Chazelle tries to keep the thematic focus lasered in on what matters most, but additionally cannot resist the pull to include a smattering of everything. The result is that a lot of characters are short-changed while the emotional energy is exhausted upon impact.
By the time the movie reaches its logical conclusion and Chazelle drowns out a briefly touching moment with the leaden assertion that the moon landing was important because a bunch of people watched it on TV, all that’s needed to wrap this up in completely conventional fashion is the use of JFK’s famous moon mission speech. And then here it comes!
Decisions like these render First Man a rather rote examination of its iconic subject. As Chazelle peels back the layers of Neil’s personality to expose his anguished headspace, the director simply has very little insight to share. His story is a sad one and then it’s a triumphant one. There are challenges and then they are overcome. There are supporting players with little to do and then they stand by the hero and accept that they have little to do. If there’s a way into this story that reveals something profoundly powerful, Chazelle hasn’t found it. This is mechanically proficient cinema running on formulaic fuel.