Movie Reviews: First Man (2018)

I question the people who aren’t impressed by the wonders of space.  The beauty of it is breathtaking and any of the complaints about funding for space exploration and research just get batted back by my “but… but haven’t you seen it?”.  If it wasn’t for the fact that regular earthly transports frequently physically stymie me and the even more minor fact that no space agency/service would want me or be in my financial reach, I (like so many others) would count that as one of my lifetime dream goals.  What I’m saying is that I eat this stuff up and love seeing everything that went into the history and the depictions of space flight.

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow up to his Best Picture nominated films Whiplash and La La Land and if he wanted to ensure that he got back, he couldn’t have picked an easier subject if he tried.  Neil Armstrong is about the closest thing we have to a universally beloved American hero and did I mention the part about the majesty of space?  If anything, it’s strange that a film hasn’t been made about him until this point, perhaps owing to the high special effects cost and modest returns of biopics.

The effects look great, starting with a tension filled test of the X-15 that combines the puts you right there into the moment without a word from Armstrong.  The handheld style, shaky camera feels appropriate for once in simulating the disorientation that these pilots and later astronauts go through while still giving a reasonably good idea of what’s going on.  That’s not to say the style translates well to the scenes down on the ground, but in the air, it is perfect.  The moon looks just as wonderful as I’d imagine it would and Chazelle makes the time spent up there feel special.

It’s just a shame that the movie has to come down to Earth at all.  The title of the movie is indicative of the content as this is very much a movie about Armstrong and only Armstrong.  If there was a Bechdel test modification for two characters having a conversation not about the lead, this test would in all likelihood fail.  It leaves Ryan Gosling (playing the lead) surrounded by a bunch of flat characters that the film doesn’t bother to develop or even try to make interesting, a nigh impossible task for a film about a colorful collection of astronauts.  The Right Stuff this is not.  Even his wife (played by Claire Foy) largely feels like she is merely reacting to him and is not so much a person in her own right.

Gosling does well in yet another of his trademark quiet, reserved performances, here spending much of it mourning the death of his daughter.    It’s just hard to make the case for Armstrong being the kind of character I want to focus my two-plus hour movie on.  He at almost all turns keeps to himself and while we will let out the occasional bit of dry wit, we mostly are just watching a very professional man going about his day with the movie desperately trying to find drama in it.  We get some indication for his detachment from others since he’s in a job surrounded by death, but it still leaves him as someone we only get rare peaks into, peaks that we could probably have already guessed.  Scenes jump about in time, moving from one major event to the next.  It’s less of natural progression and the scene changes feel abrupt.

The scenes that put Gosling in the air and space are exciting and suspenseful.  They aren’t going to compare to Gravity at the best of times, but the film excels there.  Yet, they weren’t enough to keep me from leaving the theater underwhelmed by the story.  It told of how one man made the great leap for mankind, but it left me feeling like the far greater story was the broader how we.  There’s nothing wrong with a more personal take, there’s just not much personality to this personal story.