Directed by: Damien Chazelle Written by: Josh Singer
The way I see it there are two possible draws for First Man: one is that it’s the story of real-life, iconic space explorer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the other is its director, 2016 Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. To me, the combination is an intriguing one, in large part because first man is not the type of story I would be drawn to were Chazelle not the director. A story of “man goes to space, man is hero!” doesn’t intrigue me. Chazelle’s last two films, however, have seen him create a low-key and realistic yet dystopian presentation of music education (Whiplash) and a dazzling diorama of the Hollywood-dream story (La La Land). If anyone could make an astronaut’s biopic an interesting piece of cinema, it’s Chazelle.
Now here I should plead my ignorance. While Chazelle wrote the two aforementioned films (as well as his enjoyable student debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), I did not realize until the end credits that First Man was not in fact written by Chazelle, but by Josh Singer. I was previously familiar with Singer via 2017’s The Post, a film that bothered me, due to, amongst other things, it’s lack of subtle dialogue. The difference between First Man and The Post in that regard, is night and day. While First Man isn’t exactly subtle in its interpretation of Armstrong’s psychology, it allows this to come out through subtext and Ryan Gosling’s acting. The film’s actual dialogue is realistic rather than expository. Though not particularly memorable, Armstrong’s conversations with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are surprisingly endearing due to their smoothness and low-key humor.
Singer’s script also gave Chazelle plenty of opportunities to include a diversity of backdrops, which aptly set moods. A scene-and-a-half at a pool helps illustrate the ordinariness of Armstrong’s civilian life, while a depiction of centrifuge training contrasts the pains of being an astronaut with Armstrong’s stoic toughness.
Yet despite its being a good-quality production, First Man was nonetheless little more than a “man goes to space, man is hero” story. The showing I attended opened with a PSA in which Ryan Gosling commends the team behind the movie for all the realistic technology they provided. While I had no qualms with the PSA itself (a call for people to go to the movies) it foreshadowed the film’s problems. The idea of “sitting in a tin can far above the world” is engaging as an idea: but as a realistic visual it’s rather dull (dare I say Wes Anderson should have directed this film). As Armstrong and various other astronauts make it through space, there’s not much to see other than their bodies desperately manipulating around visually un-interesting, highly confined white spaces. In short, Armstrong’s mundane life on earth, ends up being far more interesting than his terrifying journeys through space.
This would not be a problem if Armstrong had much more to his life than his space travels: and there’s a good chance he did. Singer’s interpretation of Armstrong, however, is that he is someone rendered under-communicative by trauma. In isolation this is not a bad approach, and it produces the film’s best scene (in which Armstrong explains the risk of his mission to his sons), but it unfortunately means that the film has little choice but to fill up substantial times with space-travel footage.
On a related note, the film leaves a lot unstated. For example, we are not introduced to Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) until quite late in the film. In many ways, the film’s commitment to maintaining mystery is artistically effective: it makes what we do see of Armstrong’s personality all the more engaging. One thing that remains mysterious, however, is Armstrong’s motivation to go into space in the first place: an oddity given the film’s focus on how terrifying space travel is and was perceived to be. While I won’t call this emission a defect (every movie is not obliged to answer every question), it’s possible that its presence as a theme could have added life to the screenplay.
First Man is rife interesting details throughout its run time, particularly in its reinterpretation of Armstrong’s planting of the American flag (that’s how I’ll put it, I won’t say more). It’s a solid film that should be of interest to space and American history buffs, it just doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its subject matter.