More an intimate character drama than a grandiose examination of man's place in the cosmos, First Man is far more concerned with domesticity than the actual journey to the moon, attempting to demonstrate that behind the great moments of history exist personal demons and private motivations. Nothing wrong with that of course - contextualising small character beats against a larger historical canvas can produce excellent cinema. Terrence Malick
's The Thin Red Line (1998)
, for example, uses the Battle of Guadalcanal as the background against which to engage all manner of personalised existential Heideggerian philosophical conundrums, whilst Michael Mann
's Ali (2001)
is more interested in Ali's private struggles outside the ring than his public bouts within it. However, for this kind of storytelling to work, one thing is essential - emotional connection. The audience must, in some way, care about the people on screen, otherwise their introspective problems are more than likely to feel like they are just getting in the way of the larger story. And that is exactly what happens in First Man - there is a lifelessness at the film's core, an emotional vapidity that can't be filled by exceptional technical achievements and laudable craft. The film attempts to celebrate Project Gemini and the Apollo Program, whilst also working as a character study of a man known for his emotional taciturnity. And whilst it achieves the former, the film's Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling
) is so stoic and closed-off as to be virtually disconnected from the rest of humanity.
Based on James R. Hansen
's 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the film remains tied almost exclusively to Armstrong's perspective, with the occasional shift to Janet. This sets up something of a problem as the real-life Armstrong was very much a reluctant celebrity/national hero, and despite his extraordinary accomplishments, he was not the most interesting, relatable, or easy-to-empathise-with-individual of all time. Never one for the spotlight, when Hansen's biography was published, Armstrong was living unassumingly in a quiet Cincinnati suburb, whilst in a famous 2001 comment, when asked in an interview for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project if he had ever gazed at the moon prior to the Apollo 11 mission, he replied, "No, I never did that."
With this in mind, the film sets itself the task of attempting to penetrate this most private of men, explaining why he was so singularly driven, even to the detriment of his family, to the point where not only did he plan not to tell his children he may not return from the Apollo 11 mission, he intended to leave without saying goodbye at all, until Janet changed his mind. And herein lies perhaps the film's most egregious failing. It's almost as if director Damien Chazelle
and screenwriter Josh Singer
think the Apollo 11 mission isn't interesting enough by itself - there needs to be some kind of deeper "why" behind the whole enterprise. Armstrong can't simply be a driven individual, his heroism isn't enough, there must be some kind of psychological motivating factor.
In any case, the attempts to tease out the inner workings of Armstrong's mind don't really work, as he remains very much in his own world, impenetrable to both the other characters in the film, and the audience - no matter what Gosling, Chazelle, and Singer do to dress him up, Armstrong comes across as aloof and interiorised. Partly at fault here is Gosling's performance, with its fulcrum of emotionless stoic masculinity. This is a performance we've seen him give several times before - The Believer (2001)
, Drive (2011)
, and, especially, Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
all spring to mind, and this familiarity doesn't help matters. Instead of giving the character hidden depth, the few discernible traits he possesses instead make him something of a cardboard cut-out, a 21st-century screenwriter's idea of what an American man who grew up in the 40s and 50s should be (complete with retconned political correctness).
Another issue is that the filmmakers chose to locate Armstrong's primary motivation in the death of his daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford
), which is presented with a mawkish sentimentality that, at best, fails to convince, and, at worst, actively distracts. With the lunar mission presented as much about advancing mankind as it is dealing with personal trauma, Chazelle goes to great lengths to link Karen's death with Armstrong's determination - as she is dying, he holds her and looks wistfully into the sky (indeed, whilst the real-life Armstrong attests to never gazing profoundly at the moon, the film's Armstrong never stops looking at the thing); after her funeral, he slips her bracelet into a drawer; later, he has an hallucinatory vision of her playing with other children; and on the moon's surface, he drops the bracelet into the Lunar East crater and cries a few tears for her. At one point, his wife Janet (Claire Foy
) reveals that Armstrong never mentioned Karen after the funeral, and that's a believable, and deeply emotional, detail. The problem lies in the overkill surrounding it, detracting from whatever genuine emotion such details should evoke. Every time we see Gosling stare yearningly into the sky, the potency of the film is diluted just a little bit more.
A big question in all of this, of course, is whether Armstrong really dropped the bracelet into the crater, have a vision of his daughter, and shed a few manly tears, or is this Hollywood romanticising history? The answer is, we don't know. During his interviews with Armstrong and Janet for the biography, Hansen formulated the theory that maybe Neil left something for Karen on the surface. However, when Hansen asked Armstrong if he could see the manifest for the mission, Armstrong told him he had lost it, something which would have been highly out of character for such a fastidious record-keeper. In fact, he hadn't lost it, he had donated it to the Purdue University Archives, but it is under seal until 2020. However, when Hansen asked Armstrong's sister June if it was possible he had left something of Karen's, she said that it was. So, the fact is we don't know what Armstrong did when he wandered over to the crater (his sojourn there was literally the only part of the landing that wasn't by-the-book). However, for me, the whole thing comes across as far too syrupy, an amateur psychological profiling of a man who was intensely private. Personally, I would have much preferred the Lunar East trip to remain a mystery - by showing us what they think might have happened, Hansen, Singer, and Chazelle cheapen the intensely personal nature of the moment, which Armstrong obviously chose to keep secret for a reason.
Aesthetically, Chazelle wastes absolutely no time in letting us know that this is Armstrong's film, with the excellent opening sequence taking place primarily from his POV. However, the scene also introduces the first example of Chazelle's pungent romanticism. As the shaking of Armstrong's X-15 momentarily stops, and the noise dies away, a majestic sense of calm descends. However, rather than trust the audience to extract their own interpretation of the moment, Chazelle can't resist a BCU of Gosling's eyes, with the curvature of the earth reflecting on his visor. On the other hand, a well-handled aspect of this technique is that because the film adheres so rigidly to Armstrong's perspective, very little of what he himself can't see is shown. So, for example, instead of depicting the vast infinite expanses of space, Chazelle keeps the audience tucked tightly inside the Eagle landing module (at least up to the point of the descent to Tranquility Base).
Indeed, make no mistake, the lunar landing itself is beyond spectacular, with Justin Hurwitz
's incredible music and Linus Sandgren
's superb cinematography coming into their own. The sequence was shot in 70mm IMAX, and it makes extraordinary use of the larger frame, with the first panorama of the lunar surface as awe-inspiring as anything in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
or The Tree of Life (2011)
. An especially well-directed part of the lunar descent is that rather than lay down a busy foley track, Chazelle pulls out the sound out altogether, creating an eerie, otherworldly moment that literally gave me goosebumps.
Thematically, as with all three of Chazelle's previous films, the clash between the domestic and the professional is front-and-centre. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
, Whiplash (2014)
, and La La Land (2016)
all focus on artists who sacrifice emotional relationships so as to reach an artistic peak - they all stories of men whose passionate devotion to their work and pursuit of perfection alienates the women in their lives. In this sense, First Man very much fits Chazelle's oeuvre, he seems as obsessed with how men attempt to balance work and home-life as is Michael Mann. Armstrong is not an artist, of course, but he is a perfectionist, and the pursuit of his craft does make the woman who loves him unhappy. To this end, Chazelle utilises various methods, such as having NASA radio chatter play over scenes of Jan at home alone. The film's ending is also extremely low-key and private, stripping away the finery of the Apollo mission, and leaving us instead with two people attempting to re-connect.
However, despite the magisterial last 30 minutes, and some sporadically well-handled moments, First Man is underwhelming, and, for long portions, interminably dull. As good as that final sequence is, it's no compensation for the plodding and lifeless two hours that precede it. And overall, the film isn't a patch on The Right Stuff (1983)