“First Man” has made $60 million at the box office. (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
What is needed to make a great historical drama is either an interesting figure or a fascinating event to focus on. Neil Armstrong is that figure and the space race to the moon is that event, but “First Man” still does not reach the level of greatness that it could have.
Following the death of his young daughter, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is recruited into NASA’s program to reach the moon. As he is doing this, he grapples with the loss of his daughter and the rest of his personal life.
“First Man” was directed by Damien Chazelle, who has also directed such standout films as 2014’s “Whiplash” and 2017’s “La La Land.” Based on his pre-existing work, “First Man” is a letdown. Chazelle’s other films had a certain kind of engaging energy that this one does not have, and it honestly feels like a movie made by someone else. That is not to say there is anything wrong with the directing in the movie; it and all of the technical aspects are the best stuff about the movie. It just does not feel like his work, and that is a disappointment.
Perhaps a movie about the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong’s life is not as fitting to have an energetic directing style the way two musicals are, but there could at least be something engaging about the movie. It focuses on both Armstrong’s life and the NASA mission, but does not focus on or develop either storyline enough to make it interesting.
Armstrong is a blank slate of a character who has no discernible personality traits and faux depth. To play this character, Ryan Gosling just keeps a stoic expression through the whole film. In all fairness to Gosling, though, he has a surprising amount of range as an actor and the failure is more likely on the paper-thin interpretation of Armstrong and not on him.
It makes sense why the NASA storyline is not as important to the movie because the focus is supposed to be Armstrong with the NASA mission acting as a backdrop for him. Since Armstrong is not interesting, though, this backdrop is where the audience will search for something else to be invested in, and it will also give them nothing to work with. The focus on this element is brief and the timeline jumps around too much for the audience to get much out of it.
When it comes to historical dramas, it is not unusual for the timeline to jump between events to keep things moving. A good example of this is David Fincher’s film “Zodiac” about the Zodiac killings that rocked California in the late 1960’s. What separates the two is that “Zodiac” developed the story and characters so that the audience could witness how the events developed and the characters changed as a result. In the case of “First Man,” the jumps in time hinder development of anything and just act to show the most notable events that transpired during the Apollo 11 assignment.
What is impressive about “First Man,” though, are the technical aspects and the visuals. The sound design is fantastic, the look of the props is wonderful and there are some beautiful camera shots, especially when Armstrong finally reaches the moon, littered throughout. All of these details are nice, but they are not capable of lifting the lackluster elements up, and no amount of gorgeous cinematography is a worthy or satisfying climax to a two hour film with very little going for it.
“First Man” is a technical marvel with great sound design and imagery, but the lackluster portrayal of Armstrong and the weak story causes the movie to fizzle in the atmosphere as it shoots for the moon.
Final Grade: C+