One thing I didnt expect to feel during First Man, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle's moon mission bio-drama that screened in Telluride after a Venice debut, was bored. With Chazelle using all his technical mastery to recreate a true-story feat of courage and engineering, First Man seemed bound to be a tense, bracing, thrill-a-minute—or at least a thrill-every-ten-minutes kind of a thing. There are indeed stretches of the film—particularly its gripping and just a little miserable opening sequence—when it soars (argh, sorry) to cinema heaven (ack, sorry again). But a lot of the movie has a curious drag, scenes repeating and repeating in slightly tweaked shapes until you just want to yell at the screen, “Get to the moon already!”
Perhaps thats a problem innate to the story. These astronauts of course had to do test after test, mission after mission, before Neil Armstrong could set his little booty on the sandy surface of the moon. So repetition should be expected. But in cinematic form, it all gets tiring, one rattling inside-the-cockpit launch after another. No disrespect to Chazelles formidable command of his movies physics; I just didnt need so much of it.
Also plaguing the film is his and co-writer Josh Singers emotional arithmetic. There needs to be some kind of deeper why when considering Armstrongs steadfast devotion to the moon cause, despite several fatal disasters and the very high, Free Solo-esque potential for a disastrouly failed mission. To answer that, First Man goes deep on Armstrongs grief over the death of his young daughter Karen—and over his many fellow pilots killed in the line of duty. This is a totally convincing way to tease out the inner humanity of a famously saturnine man. But all that gloom gradually smothers the film, with each shot of Armstrong staring, pained, at the moon (we get it; thats where hes going) further diluting the movies pull.
Thats partly the fault of the actor playing Armstrong, Ryan Gosling. Theres little doubt that Gosling is one of the great actors of his generation, a wily and thoughtful performer who has worked beguiling wonders on screen. But his Armstrong is yet another man of few words, his hooded eyes and pursed lips again meant to signal depth but instead seeming a bit empty. Though Gosling lets some of his sly wit shine through in moments, theres a lot of passive, affectless mien going on in First Man.
As Armstrongs wife, Janet, Claire Foy is charged with getting the blood up in the films domestic scenes. She does that well, employing her forceful poise, jutting of chin and wide of eye. Many of their scenes together yearn for Gosling to return some of that energy, so its not just Foy hurling worry at a wall. Maybe that was the real-life couples dynamic, but it makes for lopsided, inert drama.
The supporting cast, mostly brown-haired men between 30 and 55, is well assembled. Youve got Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Pablo Schreiber, Ciaran Hinds, Ethan Embry. Its quite a group! And yet in Chazelles oddly blurry articulation, its very hard to tell whos who, and what their roles were in this meeting of the moon minds. They mostly exist as an amorphous mass, with First Man not taking much time to distinguish invdiduals.
The film does the same with the science. Chazelle seems much less concerned with the how than with the visceral what, which is probably a fair instinct when dealing with a big studio picture. Still, I craved more elucidation as to what every calculation and mechanical problem meant—it might have given it all a bit more weight, understanding just how ingenious and meticulous all this science really was. Im not clamoring for a retread of HBOs almost exhaustively thorough 1998 mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, but a few more technical specs would have been appreciated.
Speaking of technical things: I guess a review of First Man is really supposed to focus on all the wizardry of Chazelles bombastic and bracingly you-are-there filmmaking. And, yes, he proves himself capable of action and rumble in a way that should solidify his big-budget career, should he want that. (Id happily see his James Bond, for example.) Maybe its just that Ive had a whole summers worth of fire and boom and am craving other, quieter things, but First Mans flights of fury didnt do all that much for me, save the aforementioned opening. (Which, again, is stunning and horrifying.)
I much prefer a more pensive moment toward the end the film, when Armstrong, after all that planning and strife and anguish, finds himself finally alone (well, Buzz Aldrins bouncing around somewhere) on that strived-for expanse of nothing. I wont spoil what happens, but its the only moment in the film when it truly, piercingly connects, Armstrongs hubris and hurt each explaining the other. Its a lovely bit, poetic when so much before it has been rigid and unyielding.
First Man will make money, and win awards. So you need not worry for it. (It got raves out of Venice.) For me, though, it was telling that some briefly glimpsed protestors in the film—asking why, exactly, we spent all this money, and these lives, to do this thing—actually seemed to make a lot of sense. Yes, the moon landing was a magnificent achievement. But, for whom? And finally, for what?
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