First Man

I was born the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and was excited that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) got his La La Land star (Ryan Gosling) to play the astronaut. I’ve heard a few complaints from people that Gosling is Canadian and not American. That’s just silly. Acting is acting. Just as I had no problem with Daniel Day-Lewis playing Lincoln (my big problem was with that movie). And nobody should’ve had a problem with Scarlett Johansson playing a transgender character, but hey….we live in a day and age where everyone complains about everything.

It was a nice change to see an astronaut film show the family dynamics (not just of Armstrong’s family, but the other astronauts), instead of just a montage of various people across the country glued to their TV sets. The problem is that you’re showing us a guy that’s so low-key and stoic that it’s often boring watching him. And at almost 2 ½ hours, that’s asking a lot of the audience.

Early on we see Armstrong lose his 2-year-old daughter from a brain tumor. We see him playing with his two sons occasionally, but more often, they’re watching as he’s working in his office. His wife (Claire Foy of The Crown) is also a bit stoic, often spending her time looking angry and chain smoking cigarettes (it makes the ending of this movie one of the weirdest things I’ve seen all year). Perhaps that’s Chazelle’s subtle way of showing this couple had its share of problems (they divorced after 38 years).

Some of these scenes were shot well. It’s one of the rare times the shaky hand-held camera (cinematographer Linus Sandgren) worked. Other times, there was a nice fog in the air, or the shots at night evoked an interesting ambience. The problem was that it would visually be stunning, but the conversations would be dull. One of those evenings include Armstrong walking with Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke), and he mentions how lonely it must be on the moon. He mentions a swing set his daughter liked, and…it goes nowhere. Oh, and speaking of his daughter, there’s a touching scene involving a bracelet of hers that he leaves on the moon. My wife said, “If that didn’t happen, I’m going to be mad. It’s just manipulative.”

Well, it didn’t happen. Gotta love Hollywood.

Another thing that I find hard to believe is that Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) was that much of a jerk. They have him saying inappropriate things (one time at a funeral). I don’t doubt they made his character that way if he wasn’t, but…I just don’t buy that he said the insensitive things they had him saying.

And on the topic of what was real and not in the movie, there’s a lot of controversy on Chazelle not showing the flag being planted on the moon. I think it should’ve been in this, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. You do see the flag on the moon in the background, and they were showing Armstrong contemplating many things. I was more annoyed with how a character keeps mispronouncing “Gemini”.

This movie has some memorable images, but I don’t feel like it has stuff we haven’t seen in other space films; especially the opening sequence. It’s Armstrong crash-landing in the desert, with lots of heavy breathing, lights flashing, and buttons being pushed.

There’s one moment that would’ve been mesmerizing. It’s a silent section of the film on the moon, but the moment was blown by the fact that you could hear the movie playing in the next theatre over (and I have to assume that will be the case in most theatres).

The idea of showing the eight years leading up to the actual moon landing was a good choice. On one hand, it’s interesting to realize just how dangerous all this was. We’re used to seeing the footprint on the moon, and Aldrin hopping around the surface of the moon. We forget all these astronauts that died during test runs (one scene shown with three dying before take-off, is rather powerful). The problem with the eight years is that…it’s mostly just dull. You see the year placed on the screen, and start doing math in your head to figure out how soon we’ll get to 1969.

And how many shots do we need of Armstrong staring up at the moon? We get it, you’re gonna be going up there soon.

Things also aren’t helped along by the depressing nature of it all.

The movie also needed a bit more in the way of character development (one of the same complaints I had with Dunkirk). The supporting characters are solid, though; they’re played by Kyle Chandler, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds, I always love seeing him on screen.

The score by Justin Hurwitz, who has worked on the other Chazelle films, felt like it was trying too hard to be a John Williams score in a Spielberg picture. I did like segments of it, though. The use of an electric theremin was perfect for a space picture, and the Moog Synthesizers and an Echoplex gave off a nice vibe for that time period.

The whole production is rather scattershot, and it was rather disappointing. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to be hearing about this movie around Oscar time. It’s the kind of epic that audiences won’t care for, but the Academy will like (think Dunkirk last year).
I couldn’t decide whether to end this movie review by saying it was a failure to launch, or saying that it’s one small step for Ryan, one giant sleep for mankind.

2 stars out of 5.


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