Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian d'Arcy James, Brady Smith, Philip Boyd
Director: Damien Chazelle
Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise is a curious case. His feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, showcased a cineliterate fondness for John Cassavetes and Jacques Demy, while his obsessive jazz drama Whiplash revealed a knack for propulsive editing and egotistical male protagonists. Of course, his bonafide breakthrough, La La Land, set its sights on reviving the MGM Hollywood musical while netting him a Best Director Academy Award in the process. At just 33 years of age, Chazelle has been likened to a wunderkind in the Steven Spielberg mold (though his films bare little resemblance to the king of pop cinema), leading him to attempt the most prestigious of all genres; the biopic.
Interestingly, Chazelle has chosen to forgo slick populist entertainment which usually wins Oscars in favor of an intimate drama about American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Shot in a grainy, hand-held visual style not unlike early 70’s films, First Man demythologizes the American space program by shedding the jingoistic DNA of similar space flight pictures like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. Tactile in its technical details while shaggy in plot, First Man is closer to the films of Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick than Spielberg or Ron Howard.
Of course, Chazelle doesn’t have the anti-narrative poetry of Malick and lacks the discipline of Nolan on his best days. Still, Josh Singer’s spare screenplay does give him apple room to probe the mind of Armstrong as a man of few words whose reluctance at playing hero is telegraphed early and often. As played by Gosling in his patented stoic mode, Armstrong is taciturn and glum, but also obsessively driven; (i.e. a standard Chazelle male protagonist), and though the actor excels at capturing Armstrong’s inwardness, he fails to truly make us forget we are watching a performance. Call it the curse of being Gosling, but he’s just not someone who can effectively disappear into roles. Singer’s script also doesn’t do the film any favors by leaning too heavily on the biopic crutch of the dead child. The tragic death of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter before he joined the NASA Astronaut Corps was certainly a major turning point in his life, but Chazelle’s insistence on using flashback and hallucination in which the child is consistently foregrounded begins to feel like the kind of lazy cliché he was probably hoping to avoid.
Meanwhile, Claire Foy gives a wonderfully raw performance as Janet Armstrong, but like most movies fixated on the lonely American male, her role is severely underdeveloped. Essentially at wit’s end due to her husband’s dangerous job and emotional vacantness, Coy is forced to cycle between a few basic modes; concern, tenacity, and warmth, but does so effectively. Other NASA contemporaries pop in and out, most notably Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas), but this is ultimately Armstrong’s story. As such, it is a film unusually obsessed with process and procedure, not to mention grief.
Once the Apollo 11 reaches the surface of the moon, Chazelle treats us to images both awe-inspiring and eerie, but the real strength of First Man is its somber detachment from myth-making. Instead of pop culture pandering, the film reveals the terrifying reality of these endeavors (not to mention the human cost) where made-made vessels essentially sent human beings out into the vastness of space, possibly to die. Only a misguided moment on the moon’s surface which ties back into Armstrong’s anguish over the loss of his daughter feels like the kind of Ron Howard-esque swing into sentimentality Chazelle had otherwise been successful at curbing. In that moment, First Man feels like typical Hollywood awards bait. Otherwise, this is the rare prestige bummer movie where our American hero is sad and muted rather than gregarious and flag-waving.