I’m clearly in the dissenting minority on this point, but in my critical assessment, Damien Chazelle is only at a 50 percent success rate. While I loved Whiplash, I thought La La Land was a self-indulgent act of cinematic masturbation specifically geared to placate Academy voters. So I was not particularly surprised that First Man, Chazelle’s reunion with La La Land star Ryan Gosling, proved to be something of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a carefully composed character study of Neil Armstrong (Gosling) during the years leading up to his historic walk on the moon, which is a fascinating subject; on the other hand, Armstrong is depicted here with the emotional range of a brick, which makes it hard to engage with his character arc. And don’t get started on the running time.
The story is straightforward enough, following Armstrong’s life from his days as a test pilot through his selection and training as an astronaut, capped off by that compulsory third-act visit to the moon. The ostensible core of the film is Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet, (Claire Foy), but screenwriter Josh Singer’s script depicts the Armstrongs as such classically stoic Midwestern types that it’s hard to attach any real emotional gravity to their arcs, resulting in a story that feels cold and calculating where it should be tense and conflicted. To be fair, that narrow emotional range could have been tailor-made for Gosling’s abilities, but Foy deserved better than this. Adapting from James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, Singer may be hitting close to the mark with his characterization, but in doing so, he’s given the more compelling aspects of his subject short shrift.
First Man seems like an odd fit for Chazelle, a director I would not have pegged as pivoting from musicals to historical biopics. To say that he proves ill-suited to the task would be a bit reductive but also a fair assessment. First Man is an intensely dispassionate film in both story and style, a prestige drama with plenty of prestige but a distinct deficiency of drama. Whereas NASA-centric films like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13 played the motivations underlying their similar subject matter as complicated but ultimately heroic, First Man depicts it as a more foolhardy endeavor. The uproar over its lack of a flag-pitching scene on the lunar surface is entirely unjustified as the film has a patriotic streak that borders on jingoism, but there’s an element of cynicism surrounding Chazelle and Singer’s approach to the space race that could have amounted to an interesting take had it been more fully developed.
First Man is not a fundamentally bad film, but it is a disappointing one. The filmmakers seem to be questioning how many lost lives an international pissing contest was actually worth, while also lionizing the scrappy sense of American exceptionalism that set it off in the first place. When it comes to that level of thematic dissonance, you really can’t have your Moon Pie and eat it too.