Before we start this FIRST MAN review in earnest, I just want to address head-on Senator Marco Rubio’s complaints about the movie not being pro-American enough because we never see the Apollo 11 team stick a flag in the Moon’s surface. This is nonsense.

The movie is explicitly pro-American. It trumpets the ingenuity, curiosity, resilience, and courage of Americans. It focuses lots of time on the need for America to beat Russia in the space race. American flags show up a whole bunch. No, we do not get that shot of Neil Armstrong putting the flag on the Moon. In part, I expect, because there are about 100 hundred movies, tv show, documentaries, and photo layouts you can see that image in.

FIRST MAN, regardless of how else I feel about it, has other things on its mind than re-creating what we already have seen and that is a good thing. In other words, Rubio missed the forest for the trees. He somehow ignored a filmic-ode to the men and women who make America great to focus on there not being a specific shot of a piece of cloth that he wanted to see. In other words, the flag was more important to him then the heroes.

Make of that what you will.

FIRST MAN: Astronauts Assemble
The astronauts assemble for some good ol’ fashioned book learning in a scene from FIRST MAN. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Idea Behind FIRST MAN

FIRST MAN starts in 1961 and ends in the midst of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) post-Moon landing quarantine in August of 1969. Along the way, the film traces Armstrong’s — and, through him, America’s — attempts to go to the Moon. It bears witness to his professional and personal successes and tragedies including the death of his daughter and several friends and colleagues.

While the movie follows the course of historical events, it is more interested in oriented the story around Armstrong’s perspective. As such, it does not tell a complete story of either the Gemini or Apollo missions but rather slips in and out of them to reveal Armstrong’s and America’s personality.

FIRST MAN: Father and son Eric
Ryan Gosling and Luke Winters assemble a puzzle together in a scene from FIRST MAN (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Writing FIRST MAN

Drawing from James R. Hansen’s book of the same name, Josh Singer’s script takes the macro and pulls it down to Earth–pun not intended but not shied away from either. Singer’s writing makes Armstrong the center of the film, but not the POV character. Instead, it casts him as a sort of stoic cipher. Actually to call him stoic is to call ice cold. It greatly understates the case.

Meanwhile, the screenplay sets the rest of the world roiling around him. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) feels, by turns ignored, abandoned, and the only one raising their kids. This pain is only increased by Neil’s refusal to even mention the name of their deceased daughter around Janet. His colleagues and friends are similarly frozen out by Neil’s disposition which can be dryly funny but is more often just plain flat. As an astronaut, he is driven to perfection, as a peer, he frequently seems to disappear in times of need, figuratively and, occasionally, literally.

Structure-wise, the film tends towards the episodic, check in and out of Armstrong’s lives with only the occasional on-screen year caption and growth of the children available to mark the passage of time. It allows the screenplay to cover lots of grounds but often seems at odds with digging deeper into the mission of exposing and observing what makes Neil Armstrong tick.

FIRST MAN: Janet
Claire Foy watches the radio with intensity in a scene from FIRST MAN. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Casting The Leads Of FIRST MAN

Given how many different ways I’ve found to describe Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong as “internal” and “emotionally closed off,” I would not be surprised if you expected his performance to be boring. However, you would be wrong. Gosling finds the path that reveals how Armstrong handles emotions with others around and how that hides just how powerful his feelings really are. I found the scenes where he dotes on his daughter particularly affecting.

They are obviously undergirded by impending, but it is really his sense of just being in the scene that sells it. There are several moments in the movie after that which simply would not work had he not so excellently laid the foundation in that montage sequence. Claire Foy, unfortunately, has a far more thankless job. Like the wife of a superhero or spy, she has to be the one at home who keeps demanding her man stick around rather than change the world. The fact that this is a true story only makes it worse.

We know if she “got her way,” Armstrong would moonwalk into the history books in such a prominent place. She does well bringing the pain of being the one stuck home and hurting while your husband gets to hide at work and behind being “important”. It’s just such a bum rap, you know?

FIRST MAN: Ed White
Jason Clarke mans the radio in FIRST MAN. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Casting The Rest Of The FIRST MAN Call Sheet

The cast is chock a block full of excellent character actors playing names you will absolutely recognize from history. While all the supporting players turn in strong work, a few end up being particularly noteworthy.

Jason Clarke plays Ed White as the next era of man. If Armstrong is the quintessential stoic man who views his duty as a man to be forever calm and unemotional, White is an early adapter of the sensitive man. He discusses his faith and his love for his family without shame and consistently attempts to draw Armstrong out of his emotional cocoon.

Patrick Fugit, — so great to see him again — on the other hand, plays Elliott See as Armstrong’s best friend who demands nothing of the closed down man. A constant presence, he seems to unlock Armstrong in a way that no one else, not even Janet, does. Lastly, I have to shout out Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. While Aldrin ends up being a rather small part of every story, Stoll makes him instantly memorable.

As the socially unaware/uncouth member of the team, Aldrin puts words to the more unpleasant aspects of being an astronaut. The risk, the professional jealousy, the reality that others’ failures puts you ahead, and so on. But he does so in such a jovially clueless way, it makes it clear he means no harm. In contrast to Gosling’s rigid Armstrong, Stoll’s loose-lipped unfiltered Aldrin is a kick.

FIRST MAN: Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins
Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, and Lukas Haas face the press in a scene from FIRST MAN. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Filming of FIRST MAN

Damien Chazelle, as eluded to in my introduction, consciously avoids a lot of the tropes of moonshot movies. It is a decision that I respect. It reflects the film’s intent to focus more on the man than the mission well.

However, Chazelle never seems to get the ratio right. There is a lot of mission and the man, frequently, reveals little about himself from scene to scene. The result is the energetic spark that ignited both his work on WHIPLASH and LA LA LAND is largely absent. The movie is well-directed. Chazelle makes smart choices with his actors and his shot choices. He clearly had budget restraints but the movie does not feel stunted because of it.

And yet, it does not feel as alive as I know Chazelle can manage. Armstrong being quiet and solid does not demand the movie mirror that. This is the space race for goodness sake! Let the movie have some pop!

FIRST MAN: Kaboom!
Ryan Gosling walks away from a wreck in FIRST MAN (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

FIRST MAN is good. Very good at times. The acting is quality, absolutely. The directing? Accomplished. I just wish it made my heart race a bit, give me a lump in the throat, or made me want to cheer.

One Comment

  1. Joe Marino

    October 24, 2018 at 1:59 pm

    This was a good movie- not a great one. Clair Foy and Corey Stoll stole the movie. In some ways, I think I would have rather had a non-star as Armstrong- Gosling is too big a star and too charismatic to be stifled the way he was.

    The most impressive part of the film were the liftoff scenes. Seeing the movie in IMAX was a visceral experience. The room shook and my chest cavity was vibrating. Those scenes were transcendent. I wanted to be that invested in the other scenes-sadly, I was not.

    This was a captial M- Movie- that felt a little more important than it was. I agree- where was more of the awe. That would have made this a truly great Movie!

    Reply

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