First Man Is a Failure to Launch

Movie based on Neil Armstrong tries to do too much with too little.

It’s equal parts missed opportunity and left-handed compliment to say that Damien Chazelle has delivered a film as astounding, yet punishing and overtly manipulative, as First Man.

What the film does show of the ‘60s space race is only used as a moon-sized metaphor for Armstrong’s inner turmoil. This seemingly translates into reaching the moon as the only location where catharsis could be had. However, there are better metaphors to hang a lamp on and more effective ways to tell this story. The failure to separate the history of the Apollo space program from Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and his well of infinite sadness is glaring. You can feel Chazelle trying to split the difference. As if an Armstrong drama couldn’t hold its own. Or that a period piece about the space program had been done. Either angle is ripe for subject matter. The problem is not picking a lane. Sadly, it gets worse.

Ryan Gosling does the best with what he’s given. He makes a meal out of a sentence since the script is littered with stoicism and lack of context. Claire Foy steals the show as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. She does the yeoman’s work of conveying everything about why there is trouble at home. The scenes between the two actors would’ve been electric if the dialogue wasn’t so one-sided. The Who’s Who cast of stellar actors are all left underutilized. You can’t review what’s not on the screen.

It doesn’t take repeated viewings to see all the glaring omissions and privileges taken to shoehorn this story into something reasonable. Armstrong’s steely drive to make it to the moon as the only way he could have catharsis for the death of his daughter is wildly misplaced. If we’re telling the story accurately, screenwriter Josh Singer clearly omits the fact that aviation and beyond was already a lifelong passion. Work as a grieving and coping mechanism is an easy concept, there isn’t a reason to skew it so dramatically.

Let’s talk about that total Oscar-bait scene. Being the “First Man” to make one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind wasn’t big enough. No. Chazelle had to have Armstrong release his daughter’s bracelet into the vastness of space. I understand thematically, why that (false) liberty was taken. But it completely undermines the actual history and drama. Simple enough, it’s an irresponsible, cheap move that the chickiest of chick flicks would call hack.

Even if we accept that, we still must wrestle with how negligent of a father and husband he is to his family with no resolution in sight. This is barely okay if we’re in the business of tearing down idols, but the director isn’t doing that. So, what is he doing?

This is third film by Chazelle about men and testing the limit of their obsession. A spotlight is now on the director and his obsession about men and testing the limits of their obsession. It’s the third film where he’s vague about his position on the issue. This isn’t becoming so much a calling card like Scorsese as much as a pigeonhole.

All that said, the visuals are amazing. Linus Sandgren should have the director of photography Oscar sewn up. Shot on film is a perfect touch shot in 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm Imax. A masterclass in film. This is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just a shame the story doesn’t break its orbit.

JP Spence

JP Spence is a writer, screenwriter, and improviser living in Los Angeles. He previously served as the media critic for the Topanga Messenger and as Editor-In-Chief for the LA Valley Star. You can find Josh @JP_Spence on twitter or at any press screening.

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