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More an intimate character drama than a grandiose examination of man's place in the cosmos, First Man is far more concerned with domesticity than the actual journey to the moon, attempting to demonstrate that behind the great moments of history exist personal demons and private motivations. Nothing wrong with that of course - contextualising small character beats against a larger historical canvas can produce excellent cinema. Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), for example, uses the Battle of Guadalcanal as the background against which to engage all manner of personalised existential Heideggerian philosophical conundrums, whilst Michael Mann's Ali (2001) is more interested in Ali's private struggles outside the ring than his public bouts within it. However, for this kind of storytelling to work, one thing is essential - emotional connection. The audience must, in some way, care about the people on screen, otherwise their introspective problems are more than likely to feel like they are just getting in the way of the larger story. And that is exactly what happens in First Man - there is a lifelessness at the film's core, an emotional vapidity that can't be filled by exceptional technical achievements and laudable craft. The film attempts to celebrate Project Gemini and the Apollo Program, whilst also working as a character study of a man known for his emotional taciturnity. And whilst it achieves the former, the film's Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is so stoic and closed-off as to be virtually disconnected from the rest of humanity.
Based on James R. Hansen's 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the film begins in 1961, and hits all the beats you would expect in the lead up to the Apollo 11 mission in 1969; the death of his daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford) from a brain tumour; his acceptance into Project Gemini; NASA's shock at the Soviet's successes in the Space Race; his selection as commander of Gemini 8; the death of Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) during a plugs-out test of Apollo 1; Armstrong's selection as commander of Apollo 11; his marriage problems with his first wife, Janet (Claire Foy); the lunar landing alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll); and his private sojourn to the Lunar East crater.
With this framework, the film remains tied almost exclusively to Armstrong's perspective, with the occasional shift to Janet. This sets up something of a problem, as the real-life Armstrong was very much a reluctant celebrity/national hero, and despite his extraordinary accomplishments, he was not the most interesting, relatable, or easy-to-empathise-with-individual. With this in mind, the film sets itself the task of attempting to penetrate this most private of men, explaining why he was so singularly driven, even to the detriment of his family, to the point where not only did he plan not to tell his children he may not return from the Apollo 11 mission, he intended to leave without saying goodbye at all, until Janet changed his mind. And herein lies perhaps the film's most egregious failing. It's almost as if director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer think the Apollo 11 mission isn't interesting enough by itself - there needs to be some kind of deeper "why" behind the whole enterprise.
In any case, the attempts to tease out the inner workings of Armstrong's mind don't really work, as he remains very much in his own world, impenetrable to both the other characters and the audience - no matter what Gosling, Chazelle, and Singer do to dress him up, Armstrong comes across as aloof and interiorised. Partly at fault here is Gosling's performance, with its fulcrum of emotionless stoic masculinity. This is a performance we've seen him give several times before - in The Believer (2001), Drive (2011), and, especially, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - and this familiarity doesn't help matters. Instead of giving the character hidden depth, the few discernible traits he possesses make him something of a cardboard cut-out, a 21st-century screenwriter's idea of what an American man who grew up in the 40s and 50s should be (complete with retconned political correctness).
Another issue is that the filmmakers choose to locate Armstrong's primary motivation in the death of his daughter, which is presented with a mawkish sentimentality that, at best, fails to convince, and, at worst, actively distracts. With the lunar mission presented as much about advancing mankind as it is dealing with personal trauma, Chazelle goes to great lengths to link Karen's death with Armstrong's determination - as she is dying, he holds her and looks wistfully into the sky; after her funeral, he slips her bracelet into a drawer; later, he has an hallucinatory vision of her playing with other children; and on the moon's surface, he drops a bracelet belonging to her into the Lunar East crater and cries a few tears. At one point, Janet reveals that he never mentioned Karen after the funeral, and that's a believable, and deeply emotional, detail. The problem lies in the overkill surrounding it, detracting from whatever genuine emotion such details should evoke. Every time we see Gosling stare yearningly into the sky, the potency of the film is diluted just a little bit more.
Did he really drop the bracelet into the crater? The answer is, we don't know. During his interviews with Armstrong and Janet for the biography, Hansen formulated the theory that maybe Neil left something for Karen on the surface. However, when Hansen asked Armstrong if he could see the manifest for the mission, Armstrong told him he had lost it, something which would have been highly out of character for such a fastidious record-keeper. In fact, he hadn't lost it, he had donated it to the Purdue University Archives, but it is under seal until 2020. However, when Hansen asked Armstrong's sister June if it was possible he had left something of Karen's, she said that it was. So, the fact is we don't know what Armstrong did when he wandered over to the crater (his sojourn there was literally the only part of the landing that wasn't by-the-book). However, for me, the whole thing comes across as far too syrupy, an amateur psychological profiling of a man who was intensely private. Personally, I would have much preferred the Lunar East trip to remain a mystery - by showing us what they think might have happened, Hansen, Singer, and Chazelle cheapen the intensely personal nature of the moment, which Armstrong obviously chose to keep secret for a reason.
Aesthetically, Chazelle wastes absolutely no time in letting us know that this is Armstrong's film, with the excellent opening sequence taking place primarily from his POV. However, the scene also introduces the first example of Chazelle's pungent romanticism. As the shaking of Armstrong's X-15 momentarily stops, and the noise dies away, a majestic sense of calm descends. However, rather than trust the audience to extract their own interpretation of the moment, Chazelle can't resist a BCU of Gosling's eyes, with the curvature of the earth reflecting on his visor. On the other hand, a well-handled aspect of this technique is that because the film adheres so rigidly to Armstrong's perspective, very little of what he himself can't see is shown. So, for example, instead of depicting the vast infinite expanses of space, Chazelle keeps the audience tucked tightly inside the Eagle landing module up to the point of the descent to Tranquility Base.
Indeed, make no mistake, the lunar landing itself is beyond spectacular, with Justin Hurwitz's incredible music and Linus Sandgren's superb cinematography coming into their own. The sequence was shot in 70mm IMAX, and it makes extraordinary use of the larger frame, with the first panorama of the lunar surface almost as awe-inspiring as anything in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or The Tree of Life (2011). An especially well-directed part of the lunar descent is that rather than lay down a busy foley track, Chazelle pulls out the sound altogether, creating an eerie, otherworldly moment that literally gave me goosebumps.
However, despite the magisterial last 30 minutes, and some sporadically well-handled moments, First Man is underwhelming, and, for long portions, interminably dull. As good as that final sequence is, it's no compensation for the plodding and lifeless two hours that precede it. And overall, the film isn't a patch on The Right Stuff (1983).
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