'First Man' Review: Spectacle Disguises the Broken Astronaut

One of mankind's greatest achievements unfolds with dazzling special effects that overshadow a disengaging story.

First Man Cover

Damien Chazelle came ever so close to Oscar glory with his previous effort, La La Land. After completing a thriller with Whiplash and a musical with La La Land, Chazelle has now gone on to one of the most melodramatic genres of all, the biopic.

Chazelle has chosen the perfect subject for a genre this tired. First Man follows astronaut Neil Armstrong from 1961 and the brief life of his daughter Karen all the way to the legendary Moon landing with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The movie captures the determination of mankind while creating a sense of isolation that keeps it from greatness.

The throughline for First Man is Karen, whose young death is the emotional crux of the entire film. Without this information, it would play as little more than witness to the greatest accomplishments of a hero. There was more to Armstrong, though, something hidden behind a mask of sorrow. We learn that he was a broken man after the death of his little girl.

Ryan Gosling’s most memorable moments in First Man come from brief spurts of emotion over his daughter. Otherwise, what we see from him is a stoic man on a mission to the Moon. It is a subtle performance from the actor, but it is more a testament to the man he was capturing. Armstrong doesn’t come across as a man that lived for the spotlight; he was a man with a mission.

Armstrong was an astronaut selected for Project Gemini, positioned as the United States’ answer to the Soviet Union when it came to space travel. Not only would this opportunity lead to one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of mankind, but it also introduced Armstrong to a group of other pilots who became dear friends.

The astronauts that share the most screen time with Gosling’s Armstrong are Patrick Fugit’s Elliot See, Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin, and Jason Clarke’s Ed White. Of those men, Clarke’s character comes the closest to untangling the despair inside Armstrong. In addition to the pilots, the cast also includes Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Director of Flight Crew Operations, and Ciarán Hinds as Gene Kranz, who is best known as the Flight Director of Apollo 11.

Another parent suffered in the loss of Karen, and that was Janet Armstrong (The Crown’s Claire Foy). Janet tells her friends she married Neil because she wanted a quiet life. She had no idea that her husband would put his life and limb on the line. Her role in the film is reminiscent of Pamela Reed’s Trudy Cooper from The Right Stuff. Both actors play wives that are supposed to be seen and not heard but refuse to be in that position.

Not only does Janet have to raise the Armstrongs’ two sons by herself, but she fears that one day Neil will not walk back through that door. Foy depicts Janet as a loving wife, but one that will not stand for her husband leaving them without a trace. Some of her best scenes come when she will not just be a wife who is in the dark, but an active participant in Neil’s adventures.

How do you go about bringing riveting action to a biopic? You go to outer space. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren capture space travel in a more visceral way than has ever been put on screen. It shows Armstrong’s Gemini missions as claustrophobic cages of terror. The camera rotates along with Gosling, creating an almost hypnotizing sensation.

Add in the earth-shattering sounds of metal being heated to obscene levels and you have the formula for heart-pounding thrills. Chazelle and Sangren went a step further than they’ve gone before, shooting an iconic moon landing sequence in glorious IMAX. It would’ve been nice to see more of this format used throughout the film to justify the IMAX experience and asking price, but the sound is unmatched. This is a film you will feel in your seat.

For all the special effects and great acting, First Man still suffers from being a biopic. It is hard to bring something new to the table when going through the motions of a person’s life. The movie updates the audience on the timeline of Armstrong’s life, hitting all the important beats just long enough to see them but not enough to care about them. The big moments are all here, but it comes across as a checklist instead of organic storytelling. By covering such a large stretch of Armstrong’s life, First Man doesn’t feel like the definitive statement on any of his accomplishments.

Armstrong is such a well-known subject that there is never any fear he will be unsuccessful in his mission. The fear that comes from First Man is the manufactured fear that the filmmakers have created through the marvels of special effects and cinematography. In addition, the scenes with Gosling and Foy are fine, but the chemistry between the two actors is missing something. There is never a moment when the Armstrongs look like a loving couple. It is always a bit of a strain. Armstrong is molded as a man on a mission to the Moon and little else. In doing so, First Man doesn’t leave much room for him to feel for anyone else.

First Man suffers from a subject whose life is boiled down to one tragic event. There is little room for anything else and most of the relationships suffer because of that. When showcasing some of the great accomplishment’s of man, the film is an utter spectacle. When it tries to bring humanity to Armstrong and those around him, there’s a great distance between them. While that might be true of Armstrong’s life, it makes the adventure of a lifetime feel like an afterthought. First Man will make you feel you’ve traveled to the Moon, but that confinement will leave you cold.

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.