Damien Chazelle’s third feature film, First Man, salutes the ingenuity and sacrifice necessary to launch rickety spacecrafts into the great unknown. The film spends its 141-minute runtime as a cross between a Neil Armstrong biopic and a recounting of the Apollo space program. Despite Chazelle’s technical mastery and the intrinsic allure of the subject matter, the film is unable to replicate the feelings that inspired a generation of scientists.
The story follows NASA test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and a cast of astronauts, pilots, and scientists familiar to any American with knowledge of the space program. The film opens on Neil piloting a rocket-powered aircraft in a test that would serve as a precursor to the Apollo missions. Gosling and Foy fall prey to the trope of the brilliant man who must neglect his duties as a husband and father to be brilliant, but that has more to do with the script than the actors. The brunt of First Man focuses on early missions, flipping between the interpersonal drama between Neil and his family and the stumbles and misfires of NASA, still figuratively and literally trying to get off the ground.
Chazelle hints at the national fervor around the agency, including shots of both the awe of its biggest fans and the question of whether it was worth the tax dollars from its biggest detractors, but there isn’t enough there to delve into the director’s politics on the matter. This allows the viewer an open-ended, if not frustrating, interpretation. Similarly, those who see the movie will be surprised to learn about the flag-planting controversy. The movie brings politics to the table but abstains from any discussion.
With all its shortcomings in mind, there’s a lot to like about First Man. Chazelle separates Neil’s work from his personal life with clever cinematography. The camera looms in familial scenes, cramped and confined to a house or barbecue; in scenes at his job, it pans, covering wide expanses. Gosling and Foy are tremendous, and ensemble performances by Jason Clarke as Ed White, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, among others, are understated and moving. The cast is in lockstep together portraying an era where emotions were more muted. Top to bottom, First Man’s most impressive feat is that portrayal of a bygone era. Its actors, costumes, sets, and makeup and hairstyling all place the viewer firmly in the ‘60s.
First Man is an authentic representation of what it must’ve been like to explore space before the technological boom, but given the near-universal excitement and trepidation the country felt surrounding the final frontier, First Man’s overwhelming sentiment is not of inspiration, but the lack thereof. Expressive camerawork, sensational acting, and the intrigue of the story are enough to make First Man worthy of your time, but we’ve come to expect more from the director of Whiplash and La La Land.