I really wanted to be over-the-moon in love with First Man (2018), as Damien Chazelle teams up with Ryan Gosling again. However, I only slightly enjoyed the film, and left the theater pondering Chazelle’s choice to do a biopic. There are some powerful sequences and the movie moves, but it still feels too long.
First Man isn’t a bad movie…but it also isn’t one I want to watch again
First Man follows Neil Armstrong (Gosling) as he deals with various losses in his life and refocuses himself into his work. Test after test is put in front of Armstrong, and with each one, another opportunity opens up. The film shows his time with NASA up until the historic lunar landing.
The film is full of talent, and each actor gets a few moments to showcase their skills. Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong, who has to deal with the fact that her husband often keeps her out. He suffers silently when grieving over the various family and friends he loses. The pain seems to keep him at a distance, letting Gosling demonstrate his ability to be stoic yet again. He’s great at it, but I know he’s got more range than that. To be fair, there are softer sides of him which are often very nuanced in this film. Yet, he is ultimately shown as a workaholic who uses his work to keep a safe distance from those around him. Foy does a good job of being fierce yet tender, and accepting of the stress she is under as Neil risks his life with every new entry in NASA. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, giving one of my favorite performances of his in recent films. Add Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, and the often-overlooked Ethan Embry, and you’ve got a solid cast.
However, this is the story of Neil Armstrong, and the big moments are always shown from his perspective, exhibiting how they have affected him. That was one of the elements of the story that surprised me. A common theme that Chazelle has explored is the pursuit of greatness and the impact it has on relationships. That theme is present here, but it isn’t as clear why Neil is pursuing this. Unlike La La Land and Whiplash, the lead character here seems to use his passion as a distraction and the distance of his relationships to avoid more pain. This doesn’t feel as prominent or as important as it is in Chazelle’s other films.
The story of Neil Armstrong is compelling. However, there are moments in this film that do feel like they drag on. The film is gorgeous, of course – and the moment of the moon landing is intense, but not in a way that makes it feel important. Even in the film, the stakes don’t feel as real as say, Lincoln. I reference this because I was lost in the tension as Lincoln waited for news about the amendment being approved, but never felt an ounce of doubt that Armstrong would be successful. There are plenty of examples of true story adaptations that manage to cause me to forget that I know the outcome and feel the tension of the moment. In fact, there are several fictional films that even on multiple rewatches I feel that “edge of the seat” moment. I did not experience it at times I would have expected to in this film.
First Man is not a failure by any means, but it’s not the next step in what seemed to be a fireball of a career for Chazelle. This is the first film that felt bland from the young filmmaker. In the end, I wasn’t as enthralled as I’d hoped, and that was truly disappointing. First Man earns the Decent Watch rating.