Review: First Man
“First Man”, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, is about how Neil Armstrong got to the moon. But unlike Apollo 13, this film is not about the science or trial and error of reaching the moon, but the emotional path.
The movie starts out with a gut punch. Shots of Armstrong lying flat in a shuttle are juxtaposed with shots of his small daughter lying in the same position in an exam room. Without any dialogue, it quickly becomes clear that the toddler is dying of cancer. We see him taking notes, her getting worse, moments of false hope, then her funeral, marked with a tiny casket being lowered into the ground. The sequence is absolutely brutal to watch, and thankfully, the movie moves pretty swiftly through it. Though it passes quickly, it sets the stage emotionally for the rest of the movie.
But in other parts of the movie, the sudden jumps feel jarring. We are moved through scenes with his wife, June Armstrong–we see her pregnant, then with a baby, then two children. This montage encompasses ten years or so. It seems that the creators of the movie really wanted to show his daughter alive in order to include her in the story even though it’s many years after that he makes it to the moon. This tragedy and the rebuilding of his family is a decade before the mission to the moon, but the filmmaker Damien Chazelle clearly felt that his personal life was relevant. Speeding through so many years in just a few minutes of the movie highlights how important this background is to the mission, though it may feel confusing and rushed for the viewer.
The death of his daughter Karen informs how Armstrong is able to complete his mission. The climactic scene of his first step on the moon culminates in the revelation that Armstrong has brought his daughter’s favorite bracelet. He drops it into a crater on the moon, signifying that his emotional journey is finished, as well as the mission.
Though the gravity of the moon mission is clear, the film also offers equal treatment to life in the Armstrong house. Though Claire Foy gets short shrift in this film. It’s initially a little jarring to see her first not as the Queen of England (as in the Netflix series “The Crown”), but rather as this sort of quiet, docile, Southern housewife. I was left with the impression that she was picked for the role mostly because of her immense blue eyes, which show every moment of sadness and betrayal. Scenes of her mothering alone are juxtaposed with Armstrong’s training, either to show how both types of work are important, or to show what he is missing by leaving home. The two, unfortunately, lacked any chemistry, and I personally would have preferred Emma Stone alongside him again, if that were an option.
Foy is basically the only woman with a speaking part in the film. The writers clearly tried to address the problem of only white men speaking by throwing in one scene of mostly black protestors railing against how much money the government spends on the space program compared with social services. The space race against Russia is also put into sharp focus. So the astronauts do not only have job pressure, but also family and political pressure.
I was left wondering if there was a key part of the movie that I simply didn’t catch. In many ways, the movie functioned as a portrait of a marriage as much as the story of a mission to the moon. This also perhaps justifies why this movie was made when we already had Apollo 13. My biggest question is why Damien Chazelle, fresh off his Oscar high with La La Land, would choose to make this movie. It seems far out of his repertoire of classic hollywood musicals. It also seems a huge waste to have Ryan Gosling again and not have him sing and dance. They seem to tease it at one moment, talking about Armstrong’s penchant for rewriting Gilbert and Sullivan songs in high school–but then he doesn’t sing! It’s interesting that Gosling plays Armstrong with a really whiny voice–not the macho, swaggering astronauts as depicted in Astronaut Wives (which, yes, I absolutely watched).
All and all I would say this movie was just okay–I wouldn’t rush out to see it. Gosling has some impressive acting in it, but the story is overall uneven.