First Man is about Neil Armstrong, his determination to help NASA get someone on the moon and the effect his dangerous job had on him and his family. It is only peripherally about the history of the space program and the impact the first moon landing had on the world. This is a character study showing a man whose job is very important to him and the wife who has to support him as he risks his life. While the majority of its 134 minutes (without the end credits) is narrowly focused on Neil, somehow First Man never truly feels like it gets to the heart of who he is. It is well-directed and acted, and there are a couple of scenes that are tremendously powerful, yet I was unable to stay consistently engaged with what was onscreen.
The story mainly takes place from 1961-1969, at the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviets. Neil Armstrong is presented as NASA’s most tireless employee. He is brilliant and dedicated to doing whatever he can to further the mission. At home, he struggles to shut that part of himself off enough to be present for his patient, if very worried, wife and two kids. The NASA stuff is generally compelling, especially his flights. There are a few strong scenes at home, but Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy never feel like a real couple. There is an implied complexity that is sadly underdeveloped.
While First Man can be a little thin in terms of themes and purpose, that does nothing to take away from the performances or the skillful direction. Two-time Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling, one of the most reliably great actors working today, is successful at controlling Armstrong’s mood. The movie opens with a family tragedy and he also loses several friends due to accidents during testing for space travel. You can sense the hurt in small moments, but Gosling has to restrain himself because the production as a whole is so focused and intense. It works in some places while feeling overly detached from its emotions in others. However, Gosling’s performance is never short of captivating.
Claire Foy, as his wife, anchors the supporting cast, contributing most of the emotion on display. It is nice that the screenplay (adapted from James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of the same name) gives her an arc of her own instead of just casting her as the nagging wife. Foy brings depth to their relationship that strengthens the entire movie. The filmmakers also assembled a heck of a cast to play Armstrong’s coworkers. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds and Shea Whigham all stand out as members of the NASA team. One thing First Man definitely does well is give a sense of how much effort went into putting a man on the moon. While the emphasis is undeniably on Armstrong, the work scenes are able to put his life in the context of something larger.
First Man was made by Oscar winning director Damien Chazelle (he won in 2017 for La La Land). I may have issues with the pacing of his latest project, but the visuals and intensity are extremely impressive. The scenes taking place during Armstrong’s test flights and, even more so, his eventual trip to the moon, are breathtaking. There is little dialogue in these sequences, making them more about the feeling of being in space than the drama. They make the movie worth seeing on their own.
This is a good, sometimes really good, biopic that drags too much to be great. There is a lot of interesting information here, in addition to the stunning visuals and effective performances. Chazelle is a talented filmmaker. That is obvious here even if this is not always his tightest work. Stretches of First Man are so enthralling that, despite the fact that this certainly will not make my list of favorite films for this year, I still absolutely recommend checking it out. Preferably on the biggest screen you can find.
3½ out of 5
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong
Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong
Jason Clarke as Edward Higgins White
Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton
Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin
Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott
Ciarán Hinds as Robert Gilruth
Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell
Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom
Ethan Embry as Pete Conrad
Olivia Hamilton as Pat White
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Screenplay by Josh Singer