This is the third film by director Damien Chazelle, following Whiplash and La La Land. While those two shared a common theme of music, this movie is a tad more unrelated.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is working at NASA, with the end goal being to land on the moon, though they have quite an uphill struggle before that can happen. As the movie begins, tragedy strikes his family, resulting in a much more personal movie than I expected, following how Armstrong ran from his friends and family, throwing himself into his work. His wife (Claire Foy from The Crown) tries to reach him, as do his fellow engineers and astronauts including Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, and Patrick Fugit.
Ryan Gosling here is playing a character that has seen tragedy and has gone to more funerals than anyone should have to go to. He’s broken and disheartened and somber. Gosling’s performance is superb in its subtlety but it also means our main protagonist is rather boring and dull to watch, for large sections of the film. Great performance, though not necessarily very engaging.
The emotional heart of the movie comes from Claire Foy, who knocks it out of the park in her first big Hollywood film. She gives us the emotional response that we want from Gosling’s character; she gets to swing for the fences. She really carries the weight of this film.
What really works here is how authentic the movie feels. It feels like it’s shot in shaky cam style or in first-person, making us feel like we’re there on these adventures. The visual effects are also seamless, doing some incredible stuff but without making a big scene about how elaborate it is. It all feels very real and very dated, so it totally works.
What doesn’t work?
This movie was a bit mis-marketed. The trailers showcase epic launches and death-defying moments. Those happen, yes, but a majority of this nearly 3-hour movie is much more calm. It’s dialogue-driven, it’s about characters coming to grips with eventually going on this adventure. This may mean that you might feel swindled or betrayed. The film opens with a big moment and then it calms down and stays calm for nearly an hour. It’s not an action film, so you need to know that going in.
Now knowing that… does this film succeed? As a character-piece, is this a solid movie? I’m torn. This is not even in the same league as Chazelle’s past accomplishments. Both La La Land and Whiplash stick with you, they have moments that punch you in the gut. Here, it all felt rather muted, likely because our main character is stoic and distant. Our characters don’t really change much, things just happen to them. The ending is not the satisfying and predictable ending that I had kind of hoped for. I don’t know if the climax was worth the journey.
This movie also had a problem with its supporting cast. Let me try to explain this without spoiling much… There are a lot of brown-haired white guys in this film and the movie moves them around in a way that you lose track. Someone will die and it’s a struggle to remember which person that is. At one point, I swore Armstrong was in space with another guy that I had never seen before. The movie doesn’t adequately set these people up, so when they have an important moment, we have no idea who they are. It might’ve been wise to streamline the cast at the expense of realism.
First Man is a movie that will likely get some buzz come Oscar season but I don’t think it will win anything. It’s close, it’s got some decent performances (Claire Foy might be the only one who snags a nomination) but ultimately it’s a bit of a slog, watching a distant and emotionless protagonist. Those of you that live for Oscar-bait character pieces will love this, but everyone else might have a struggle with the runtime.