Damien Chazelle is one of the best and most promising filmmakers working today. His first three films, including “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” focused on the world of musicians and artists, so it was odd to see him make a film about Neil Armstrong.
It became even more surprising considering he did not write the film, a first for Chazelle. This deviation is still a solid movie, but a weaker effort from the talented young director.
“First Man” centers on Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), following the legendary figure as he goes on the journey to become the first man to walk on the moon. Other characters figure into the film, most notably Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), but this movie almost solely follows the astronaut.
Given all the weight that’s placed upon him, Gosling does an OK job in the role. He drains himself of all charisma, giving a completely internalized, subdued performance as a normal guy. He does not excel so much that we as the audience get a glimpse behind that stoic mask, however, as he seems cold and distant to us.
Foy, known for her work on Netflix’s “The Crown,” also does not leave much of an impression. Perhaps the reason for that is her character is not given much to do besides be nervous about her husband. She does this convincingly, but the emotions she capably conveys do not register because her character is so thin. It does not help that Gosling and Foy have almost no chemistry, making any emotional scenes with their characters unearned.
The emotion is incredibly earned, however, during any scene in a cockpit. Chazelle makes “First Man” visceral in the extreme, thanks to camera work from he and cinematographer Linus Sandgren. These regular collaborators use mainly point-of-view and handheld shots in every flight scene, which brilliantly put viewers right in the plane or ship with Armstrong. These shaky, often tightly framed close-ups convey the danger he is in, making space travel something terrifying, disorienting and realistic.
The sound design also aids in making the space flight in this film unlike anything I have seen before. We hear what Neil hears, and it’s usually the sound of metal shuddering and creaking. It sounds as if it’s holding on only by sheer force of will, only enhancing the intensity of the flight scenes.
Praise for “First Man” stops there, however, as Academy Award winner Josh Singer — the writer behind the moving journalism films “Spotlight” and “The Post” — makes critical mistakes with the script.
The chief issue is Singer, who adapted the screenplay from a biography by James R. Hansen, makes the characters emotionally inaccessible to moviegoers. Therefore, we hardly care about any of them, save sometimes Neil, or their interactions.
Chazelle seemed interested in making this film only the scenes in a cockpit, as none of the rest measure up. They just feel stiff and cold, which is problematic when the film clearly goes for emotion based on the relationships between characters. One could argue this is because the film is somewhat of a docudrama, but I find it hard to believed that even a man with emotions this suppressed was this taciturn and inscrutable.
Despite its shortcomings, “First Man” is still worth seeing on the big screen for those flight scenes. They are some of the most captivating sequences in a movie this year. I’m even considering seeing the film again to see if the emotional moments work for me this time, largely because I would love to see the flight scenes on the big screen again regardless of if the drama works. I give it three out of five stars.
“First Man” is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril and brief strong language. It stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll and runs 2 hours and 21 minutes.