Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (very good)
Synopsis: In First Man director Damien Chazelle teams up with Ryan Gosling to tell the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Ambitious in scale, First Man’s two narratives charting NASA’s moon program and the life of Neil Armstrong do not quite fit together.
Neil Armstrong, like George Washington and Charles Lindbergh, belongs among the reluctant heroes of American History. Men who achieved great feats and then gracefully retreated to leave mystery in their wake. First Man attempts to focus on the many who made NASA’s Apollo mission possible while also telling the story of Neil Armstrong. In Dunkirk Christopher Nolan uses an anonymous individual as a device to place the viewer amid the scale of war and the stakes of the Dunkirk evacuation. Chazelle attempts to immerse the viewer in the scale and the stakes of NASA’s moon program through Neil Armstrong. By picking Armstrong, a man who is fascinating to explore, Chazelle fails to give both narratives equal attention. The result is a film of historical accuracy which humanises the enigmatic figure of Armstrong yet feels excessively long.
First Man’s strength is Neil Armstrong the man, deftly played by Ryan Gosling whose manly vulnerability connects with this stoic figure. Chazelle’s plot arc segments the history of spaceflight into Armstrong’s own life. Space becomes a coping mechanism to Armstrong. Each new step Armstrong takes into the heavens brings him closer to overcoming a tragedy unknown to the many that have come to know him. This tragedy defines Gosling’s depiction of Armstrong as both engrossing and endearing as the viewer sees Armstrong grapple with his inner pain.
Chazelle’s reputation as one of the foremost American directors today has gifted First Man with a cast which commands the viewer’s attention. Particular praise should be given to Armstrong’s fellow men on the Gemini and Apollo mission, especially Jason Clark as astronaut Edward Higgins White. All the characters of First Man imbue scale to the scope of the NASA mission, conveying the enormity of pressure upon Armstrong. Yet when the cockpit is sealed and the viewer is trapped alongside Armstrong, the pressure melts away against his fear and his wonder as he peeks through crude Perspex windows into space.
Scale is another weakness in First Man. Cast members become part of the setting like prop figures for a model train set as First Man funnels its attention onto Armstrong. Claire Foy, who was excellent in Unsane, is sadly under-used in First Man. Her character, Janet Armstrong, becomes side-lined into a dead-end sub-plot about the mounting cost of the Apollo mission. First Man goes beyond its natural length to include scenes which are historically accurate but are little more than dead time. By two hours and twenty minutes, the film is its own odyssey to match the moon landing.
First Man is a great film with stellar performances. However if the ten year old who assaulted the back of my chair with his feet is any indication, then some viewers will struggle with First Man’s run-time.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below;