So many films have been made about space travel and mankind’s adventures into the final frontier that audiences have grown tired and weary when it comes to the next one’s inevitable release. While the space genre film has no shortage of good entries, it’s always fascinating to see different directors’ takes on the endlessly told story of how mankind escaped the stratosphere. This particular film narrows its focus to that of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and the astronaut who stayed at the center of projects Gemini and Apollo, despite experiencing great amounts of loss, heartache and peril. First Man presents its melancholy truth in the barest fashion, unapologetically displaying the sacrifice and suffering that was necessary for the mission, and through its central character, we experience both its tragedies as well as its discoveries.
Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong from the beginning of his enrollment into the Gemini program until the the historical moon landing, and the film is focused almost singularly on him for about 90% of its run-time. Gosling is no stranger to playing quiet and distant characters, but here his acting also effectively conveys grief and bitterness in a way that definitely differs from other characters he has become known for. He carries the film effectively, and most of the film rests on his acting, but he is surrounded by a pretty decent supporting cast. Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, and many other actors play small roles, but mostly as offshoots of characters similar to what they’ve played in the past. Janet Armstrong, played by Claire Foy, is written with a little more material to work with, but unfortunately I feel she mishandled this material. I was not a fan of her portrayal. Normally I love Foy’s acting, but here it just felt out of place and overdone. It did not help that in several key scenes she slipped back into her British accent, and her performance took me out of the film on more than one occasion, which is unfortunate considering how immersive it is otherwise.
I won’t go into specific plot details of this film since it’s such a popular and well known story, but I will say the pacing of this film is extremely slow. While I did enjoy watching it and there were several scenes that placed me on the edge of my seat, I feel like this movie could have been far better edited, and as it stands, it’s about thirty minutes too long. The most invigorating and enjoyable scenes by far are the ones involving the testing of the different aircraft and spacecrafts that NASA create in the name of progress. The opening scene in particular really introduces you to the kind of insanely stressful and horrifying situations that Armstrong and the rest of the crew had to endure. The physical film-making is never the issue, as the cinematography, score and performances are all competent and well done, but the screenplay drags and drones at its worst. Damien Chazelle’s directing skill is, of course, still sharp. At its best, the film showcases its themes in mature ways and it makes painstaking efforts not to glamorize the events that happened, nor does it shy away from the death toll and the trauma that were continuously inflicted on the families of those involved in the program. I respect it for its commitment to grounded development through these tragedies, even though it was difficult to watch at times. With all this being said, I still think a lot of these scenes could have been cut, as the film becomes far less subtle and effective in its message the longer it bludgeons the viewer over the head with despair.
Overall, First Man is definitely Damien Chazelle’s weakest film so far, but despite its various flaws, it’s still a great film. The film effectively conveys how death and tragedy can affect a common man, even a common man as famous and as integral to one of the greatest scientific expeditions in history. It’s a great tribute to those who gave their lives to get us as a species up into space, without romanticizing its various personnel. It’s definitely the kind of Oscar-friendly biopic you’d expect from the trailers, but it may just be a little more mature than the average filmgoer might expect or want. It has pacing issues, inconsistent performances and some inconsistent editing, but the central core of the film is so strong and so emotionally powerful that I’d still recommend seeing this one, if nothing else for Gosling’s performance and for the immersive and intense space-exploration scenes.
Verdict: See in Theaters — Matinee
Disclaimer: I review movies based on a 5-tier scale: See in Theaters-Full Price, See in Theaters-Matinee, Rental, Wait for Streaming, and Skip It. If you disagree with this review, I encourage you to watch the film and as always, make up your own mind about it. Am I wrong? Am I spot on? Let me know in the comments below!