Man on the moon. I was only four years old when Neil Armstrong sat foot on the moon, and it’s one of my earliest memories. I remember the awe I felt even though I was too young to fully grasp what had been accomplished.
Neil Armstrong was always revered as an American hero with “The Right Stuff”. “First Man” attempts to humanize the commander of that first moon landing mission. Ryan Gosling portrays Armstrong as a stoic, enigmatic figure that is driven not by personal glory or American majesty, but instead by personal tragedy. Claire Foy does an admirable job as Armstrong’s wife Janet, a chainsmoking bundle of nerves that tries to peer into the soul of her husband, with little success. Others in the cast include Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, a former astronaut and the director of Mission Control, Corey Stoll as lunar module commander Buzz Aldrin, and Lukas Haas as Command Module pilot Michael Collins.
If you go into this film thinking you are getting something akin to Apollo 13, think again. It was easy to cheer on Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell and the rest of the crew, but it’s quite difficult to cheer on Gosling as Armstrong. Director Damien Chazelle works from a script by Josh Singer. It’s difficult to determine who the fault lies with, but we never sufficiently peel back the veneer to see the inner workings of Armstrong. Instead, Gosling gives us an unmoving portrait of a larger-than-life figure. The cinematography is moving, and the “retro” special effects are remarkable. I’ve never felt so unnnerved by a scene in a movie as I was when Armstrong steers Gemini 8 away from near-certain doom.
One of the beautiful aspects of the film is its portrayal of the quiet of space, ala “2001: A Space Odyssey”. When Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the lunar surface, there is no sound. The vast emptiness of space serves the film well, and it underscores the seeming emptiness of Armstrong’s heart. I’d love to give this biopic more stars, but I just never felt the necessary connection to the subject. That’s a shame, too, because if ever a historical figure deserved better, it would be the “First Man” to walk on the moon.
“First Man” is rated PG-13 for a bit of coarse language, and a harrowing scene inside the capsule of Apollo 1. If you want to know what makes a hero tick, “First Man” does not have the answers you seek.