The universe has endlessly intrigued mankind that stories about outer space are expected to be either epic, deep, or both.
First Man is none of that. This is both the film’s strength and weakness.
Movies about the Space Race are either historical dramas or crowd-pleasing patriotic pieces. First Man is the former, focusing on its astronaut in command Neil Armstrong. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as the sensitive introverted engineer who’s more comfortable with numbers than emotions.
“There are risks, but we have every intention of coming back,” Neil says to his son in their last family conversation before going to the moon, as passive and calm as his response in a press conference some days before.
The real star of the movie is the imagery onscreen. Damien Chazelle always has some kind of visual gimmickry to dazzle critics.
Linus Sandgren has created such vivid cinematography that you see Gosling’s eyes glow in the darkness of a lunar module, the grain in domestic scenes make it look period-accurate and the harsh yet captivating colors of objects against the dark canvas of outer space.
Accompanied by deft compositions and detailed production design, First Man is able to convey the claustrophobic, tedious, and dangerous aspects of space exploration, back when scientists used mechanical motor switches.
The story is precisely told through Armstrong’s point of view. There’s no picturesque shot of a rocket dwarfed by majestic earth or the widescreen image of a lunar module making a soft landing on the surface of the moon. It’s three guys trying to land a hunk of metal on instinct and engineering know-how because that small window doesn’t really give much of a view.
At the same time though, this technical approach leads to a joyless and cold journey.
Neil Armstrong in this picture remains a passive character. He’s a low-key reluctant hero that stays true to what we’ve been told about the guy in real life.
Chazelle tries to channel this through the rest of a supposedly awe-inspiring film. The result is a distant and superfluous story for the average moviegoer. Chazelle constantly shakes the camera in an effort to communicate Armstrong’s state of mind, but he just comes off as a grieving dull nerd.
The surrounding underdeveloped characters don’t give us any clues about him either. Janet Armstrong tries, but all Claire Foy can do is glare and stare wide-eyed. Ed White is persistent, but Jason Clarke isn’t given much either. The cast at least, make do with what they have that it’s amusing how much Buzz can be a buzzkill.
Albeit the well-crafted mood and atmosphere, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been covered by “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13”. The movie tries to tell us something but remains unreachable because of a closed-off character.
In fairness, it is still a well-crafted film that anyone who appreciates the technical aspects of filmmaking will enjoy it. The rest of the audience looking for a pulse though may get disappointed. When Armstrong finally takes that small step, it induces relief than inspiration.
“You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much, but space exploration changes your perception. It allows us to see things that we should have seen a long time ago,” says Neil Armstrong in a panel interview during astronaut selection for Project Gemini.
The movie tells us what Armstrong is looking at, but not what he sees.
First Man is a well-executed albeit cold story thanks to great performances and meticulous imagery.