A hotly anticipated film for many who follow Hollywood’s bright new stars. First Man is directed by Damien Chazelle, a young director with only three films to his name, among which the excellent Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), so everyone wants to see what he does next. First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the first man on the moon.
Why would anyone do something that is so dangerous, when you have a family back home? That is, I suppose, the question that this movie toys with. I do not say answer, because First Man does not give us a straight answer. It just shows the main arguments and lets the viewers make up their minds. For instance, the space flight sequences are all terrifying. The main emotion that Chazelle communicates with the flights is chaos and terror. The astronauts are locked inside shaky, ramshackle metal cans in which a million things might go wrong. Contrast that with the scenes of Neil Armstrong at home and we are on a trajectory towards understanding.
The home scenes of Armstrong’s family are much more complicated. The film shows space flight to be emotionally one-note: terrifying. At home, Armstrong is shown as a stoic, silent figure, and his wife (Claire Foy) is left with the emotional management of the family. They lost a little daughter early in the story and Neil grieves in silence; never talks about his sense of loss, not even with his wife. He often seeks solitude and is a hard man to get to know, even for the audience. Emotionally detached is an understatement. Is he, then, flying to the moon in a way of grieving for his lost daughter? Maybe. Or maybe he seeks an escape from the emotional demands of family life.
Chazelle made a very sad film about a very exciting event. Ryan Gosling got depressed and accidentally ended up on the moon.
One of the best scenes of the movie is when his wife forces him to tell his two sons that he is going on a mission to the moon and there is a chance of him not coming back. His detachment makes my skin crawl. There are a couple more scenes like this, all expertly shot and acted – great cinema. But the difficult connection between Neil and his wife and children actually made it harder for me to care about Armstrong’s situation at home. He’s not easy to identify with and the film observes him from a short emotional distance. It is necessary for the story that Chazelle wants to explore, but in a sense it distracted a bit from the scenes of space flight, which I found much more stirring. First Man, in my eyes, tells two stories that I found rather difficult to unify – perhaps because I didn’t care so much for Armstrong as a character.
What we end up with is a film that is well directed, well-acted, well scripted and designed. Well everything. But it was the majesty of flying to and landing on the moon that truly touched me, while the story of Armstrong left me a bit cold. The story of the astronauts’ wife is more touching. I would recommend it for the space flight scenes, especially for the actual flight to the moon and the landing. I like how it is not turned into a carnivalesque show of special effects. The effects show a gritty, minimalistic vision of the technology and experience and that accentuates the danger. But the rest of it is rather longwinded and flat.