A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969
“One small step for man, one great step for mankind”, or at least so we thought. First Man seeks to take us behind the scenes of the historic moon landing. It is also Damien Chazelle’s first non-music related movie, reuniting with his lucky charm Ryan Gosling to win that 2nd Best Director Oscar. Giving his strongest performance since the viral “Ryan won’t eat his cereal” on Youtube, Gosling and Chazelle ditch the City of Stars for the Moon in a movie that builds up momentum and thrill but drops the ball in the climax due to the movie’s indecision in whether it wants to focus on the small step for man, or the great step for mankind- ultimately failing on both fronts.
First Man focuses on Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and plots itself on the 9 year build-up to the moon landing. It was interesting to see in this 9 year build-up the difficulty of accomplishing such a feat, specifically the lives lost in pursuit of it, especially on a personal level to Armstrong. However for all this intrigue and build-up, First Man doesn’t live up to its own hype. For one, for the 2+ hours development to the actual moon landing, Chazelle decides to brush over arguably some of the most important scenes of the moon landing (the first steps on the moon and the planting of the flag). However this is symptomatic of a bigger problem: the fact that First Man doesn’t know what movie it wants to be. Most would say that it is a film about Armstrong’s trials and tribulations that led up to the moon landing, but for so much time spent on Armstrong’s personal life, you’re left not really knowing much about Armstrong at all. The film repeatedly emphasizes certain aspects of Armstrong: his awkwardness around other people including his own family, his obsession with space, and the loss of his daughter. Yet rather than develop any of these themes to enlighten his audience, Chazelle whacks our heads with the same scenes over and over again to test our goldfish memory. This is made worse when one realizes all the other aspects of the moon landing that could have been talked about: the Space Race with the Soviets or the moon landing’s international impact. Sure references are sprinkled into the film as extra #3 shouts “we’ve got to beat the Soviets” or Senator #2 says “what I care about are tax payer dollars”, but in a film that neither succeeds in capturing the personal aspect of the moon landing nor the global aspect of it, First Man feels more like a frustrating reminder of what could have been rather than what was.
Perhaps this ill-defined narrative could be credited to Gosling’s acting who continues to pursue his campaign to be the first to win the Oscar for “best facial expression actor”, phoning in the same performance we’ve seen in his older movies like Drive and Blade Runner 2049. Though we are graced with Gosling’s terrible parenting skills in a scene where he treats his kids like reporters when he tells them he might not come home, the emotional weight of the film is mostly carried by Claire Foy and supporting actor Jason Clarke who remind us of the gravity of the situation while Gosling drifts through the lengthy film in zero-gravity.
Where First Man does succeed is in its cinematography, having the film for the most part in a grainy-like texture making it seem like it was a movie from the 60s. The shaky-cam and the sound of creaking metal as the rocket is about to launch allows the audience to immerse themselves into the reality of the situation. Coupled with an enjoyable score and an impressive set up of filming from multiple angles, the viewer will enjoy the aesthetic of First Man, even when its narrative falters.
In summary, First Man showcases Chazelle’s first hurdle in his career as a director, specifically as he attempts to grasp the colossal and deliver it in a personal angle.
- Immersive Cinematography
- Supporting Cast
- Slow Pacing
- Undeveloped Storylines