Hot Take: First Man is exactly as you’d expect and that’s not necessarily good or bad. I was just glad that this history lesson didn’t come with a pop quiz at the end.
Don’t get me wrong, First Man, the latest effort from director Damien Chazelle, is well done. There’s something about this obvious Oscar bait that left me wanting something more though. Then again, if you push me to pinpoint why, I don’t know if I give anything more than just my gut saying there’s just something missing here. While the story is great, the production value is high, the performances are solid and the script is solid, there’s a lack of connection that exists between the audience and the material unfolding on screen. The film is the story of Neil Armstrong first and foremost and there’s plenty to admire about the first man to ever set foot on the moon but it dips so heavily into the territory of docudrama, it’s nearly impossible to get immersed emotionally. This is evident when we reach the third act and a number of secondary characters have become fatalities yet my eyes weren’t even a little bit puffy and my nose as dry as it is in mid-summer in Las Vegas.
In First Man, the story picks up with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) piloting an X-15 rocket plane that inadvertently bounces off the atmosphere. Concerned he’s distracted, Armstrong is grounded by the program. Dealing with his daughter’s brain cancer, Armstrong frantically attempts to track her symptoms and discover a treatment or some way to help her get better but it’s futile as his almost 3 year old daughter dies. Soon after her death, Armstrong applies and is accepted into the Project Gemini program and joins NASA Astronaut Group 2. The Armstrong family moves to Houston and Neil dives into his work at NASA as the Project Gemini program looks to beat the Soviets to the moon.
The film sticks to the facts and while there’s emotional moments, the storytelling process is so clinical, it’s hard to get emotionally invested. This isn’t a knock on Gosling who gives a solid performance nor is it a ding on Chazelle as this is the path he’s chosen for the tale. Maybe a more emotional film would lack the expertise and precision this film seems to possess. We know the director is capable of a more imaginative effort since he was the man behind La La Land after all. While the film builds to that final moment when Armstrong finally walks on the moon for the first time, there’s also a lack of drama since we know the outcome. The fact that there’s really not much else beyond that moment is another potential reason the film lacks the gravitas you’d expect.
It would be shocking if First Man doesn’t make some noise when Oscars are announced. It could even walk away with one or two (put your money on Best Cinematography). However, while this is obvious Oscar bait and a story overdo to be told, it’s not without it’s faults and it feels like Chazelle and company may have left something behind here and there’s a slightly better film that was never made.
The words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” give you chills.
You prefer your space movies to contain laser weapons and robots.