REVIEW: 'First Man' Is a Stellar Action Spectacle but Falls Emotionally Flat

REVIEW: 'First Man' Is a Stellar Action Spectacle but Falls Emotionally Flat
Credit: YouTube Screenshot

What you need to know

Ryan Gosling's star turn as a grief-stricken Neil Armstrong leaves little room for emotional nuance.

"First Man" is wunderkind director Damien Chazelle’s first non-musical feature, and it reveals that what’s been sustaining him isn’t the music, but the kinetic energy of musical rhythm. This Neil Armstrong biopic excels at the kinetic launches and spaceflight sequences, but drags along when it has both feet on the ground.

The story follows Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from just before he enters Project Gemini to just after he returns from the moon. It starts strong: Neil is flying an X-15 rocket plane (the same type of aircraft that, as of this writing, still holds the speed record for a manned and powered vehicle) when things go wrong, and he saves himself by the seat of his pants. This opening sequence employs all the virtuoso tricks that make the action scenes so exciting: quick cuts between extreme close-ups of Gosling’s face and his subjective point-of-view piloting the intensely shaking aircraft. Only when he successfully lands the thing did I realize I was holding my breath.

The same techniques are used to portray Gemini 8, in which the U.S. first achieved in-orbit docking between two crafts. But this time, there’s a twist – literally, the spacecraft begins to rotate uncontrollably, faster than the centrifugal force meter can indicate. The pacing of this sequence is quite deliberate: Neil and pilot David Scott (Christopher Abbott) work non-stop at communications, calculations, and standard operating procedures all through the mission, fostering the sense that the slightest mistake could doom them. But it’s only after they accomplish everything and start to relax that things go sideways.

People often like to tout the law of threes, but this intense and nerve-wracking style starts to wear a bit thin by the time Apollo 11 rolls around. Yes, the previous attempt just exploded on the launchpad, there’re now three guys instead of the two guys on Gemini, and the rocket is, comparatively speaking, huge, so tall that the vertical tracking shot that introduces it is cut into three parts by editor Tom Cross. But, for better and for worse, fewer things go wrong.

Credit: First Man stills / IMDB

With all this excitement, the actual “One small step for man” moment is a bit of an anticlimax – like many arduous journeys, the trip is more exciting than the destination. The film attempts to create a sense of sublime wonder by juxtaposing the frenetic activity of spaceflight with the silent passivity of the lunar surface. Two shots actually approach this goal: When they get the door of the lander open, the camera glides over the transom and, as the vista expands, so does the aspect ratio, ballooning into full IMAX (if you see it on the right kind of screen). This static wide shot is later complemented by a ground-level shot that makes breathtaking use of the higher IMAX resolution, seemingly picking out individual grains of lunar sand. Kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren.

With all the excitement of spaceflight and melancholy of grief, the film leaves little room for humor.

Such a granular perceptivity is sorely lacking from the other part of the film, the scenes set in the Armstrong household. After Neil lands the X-15, the very next sequence relates the death by cancer of his two-year-old, Karen (Lucy Stafford). The rest of the domestic scenes revolve around Neil’s repression of grief, to the extent that on the eve of the Apollo launch, knowing that he might never return, he has to be forced by his wife Janet (Claire Foy) to say goodbye to his two sons. Even then, he’s unwilling or unable to open up, and his canned, hedging answers to his boys’ questions turn the dinner-table conversation into a mini press conference.

Setting aside for the moment the fact that the real Neil Armstrong, by all accounts, was never reserved to this extreme degree – and also ignoring for the moment what the film says about this pathologically stoic form of masculinity by emphasizing how utterly brilliant he is during training and spaceflight – the flimsiness of this characterization in Josh Singer’s script, from a purely artistic perspective, sucks the life out of the domestic scenes like a massive black hole.

Credit: Reuters / Vincent West
Co-stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy arrive to a showing of the feature film 'First Man' at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain on Sep. 24, 2018.

Despite how hard Claire Foy fights it, Neil’s repressed grief leaves Janet no breathing space outside of being a worried wife and harried mother. It’s also a shame for Gosling, too, as it further strengthens his typecasting as this kind of character following high-profile leading roles in "Blue Valentine" (2010), "Drive" (2011), "Only God Forgives" (2013), "Blade Runner 2049" (2017), and even "La La Land" (2016) to an extent. He’s capable of so much more.

With all the excitement of spaceflight and melancholy of grief, the film leaves little room for humor. If I’m not mistaken, every single joke appears during Neil’s training, which is goal-oriented enough to exclude every emotion but determination. Humor works best when it interrupts something serious. And as Shakespeare showed a few centuries ago, comedic relief can deepen contrasting emotions. As it stands, "First Man" is by turns flatly exciting and flatly sad.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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