‘First Man’ gets lost in space, despite visual beauty

At first glance, First Man is a lot like Chazelle’s other movies. It has the emotional grip and high stakes intensity of his debut Whiplash.

Ryan Gosling in First Man (photo credit: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
Ryan Gosling in First Man
(photo credit: UNIVERSAL PICTURES)
Coming off his Academy Award for La La Land as the youngest Best Director in Oscar history, Damien Chazelle had all eyes on him. Attempting to take one giant leap for all moviekind, the 33-year-old chose to film a historical moment permanently fused to the collective American conscious.
“First Man,” is a biopic that focuses on Neil Armstrong and the eight years that led up to the success of the first moon landing. A surprising choice, the film places NASA and the astronauts in the background and tries to launch Armstrong and his emotional turmoil into the forefront. It’s a tactic that largely fails.
At first glance, First Man is a lot like Chazelle’s other movies. It has the emotional grip and high stakes intensity of his debut Whiplash. It features a brooding Ryan Gosling and the energetic direction of his Oscar darling La La Land. Yet, First Man never quite resonates or takes off.
For one thing, it’s long. Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, the film could have easily trimmed 45 minutes. Chazelle clearly wants to take his time and build tension, but for a story that’s essentially just a series of test flights and astronaut funerals, the conceit gets tiring.
The film is dark and dismal. Chazelle makes a choice to trade in a triumphant story of patriotism and American achievement for a bleak and introspective film about loss and legacy.
One can only imagine what Clint Eastwood, who was attached to the project back in 2003, could have done here. Eastwood knows how to milk the majesty of American heroism and diligence like no other. Chazelle’s attempt mostly just reeks of pretension.
All of that being said, First Man is a technical marvel. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who worked with Chazelle on La La Land, captures the spectacle of space travel without being overly showy. His shots are meticulous and gorgeous.
Scenes of Armstrong attempting to pilot a ship, which reoccur throughout the film, are so effective that they induce claustrophobia, transporting viewers to the seat of action. As the rocket fuel ignites the blast beneath the ship, audience members are thrust into the back of their seats, cheeks flapping with the propulsive force of the film’s sound.
At times it feels more like a Disney World ride and less like a movie, but that’s OK. At these moments, Chazelle is most effective.
Ryan Gosling, who takes on the title role, is working overtime to make Chazelle’s vision work. As the emotional core of the film, he turns in an understated and thoughtful performance. It might not be enough to save the movie, but a lesser actor couldn’t accomplish what Gosling does with a glance or a furrowed brow.
Claire Foy, known for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown, one-ups Gosling, playing Armstrong’s burdened wife. Her expressive eyes and righteous indignation anchor the viewer in the familial reality of Armstrong’s undertaking.
Though visually stupendous, especially if seen in IMAX for a few glorious moon sequences, First Man fails to say much, despite its potential political undertones. Not helping is the film’s astoundingly and overwhelmingly white male cast.
Viewers eager to see an exuberant, colorful and diverse retelling of the Armstrong space saga should turn instead to last year’s Hidden Figures.
Each year, reaching back to 2013, a talented director mounts an Oscar-ready film project about outer space. This trend has given us Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, among others. Where “First Man” succeeds in emotional maturity and visual marvel, it never is able to capture the film magic of its genre’s predecessors.