My favorite movie of 2016, surprising to me given it was a musical, was La La Land. Now, the director of that movie, Damian Chazelle, has a new film out dramatizing Neil Armstrong’s life up to his trip to the moon. Watson has already reviewed this one. What did I think?
Starting in 1961 and ending with his return to Earth after the first manned trip to the moon, First Man shows just how dangerous early NASA flights were. The opening, showing Armstrong flying solo into space and back, was done almost entirely inside the capsule. The audience hears every shudder, every alarm, and every other sound that makes it seem surprising the thing didn’t pop a rivet. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) though the entire sequence never seems to break a sweat, not even speaking until he gets back to Earth safely.
And that, in a nutshell, is First Man. Armstrong in life was a quiet, humble man. He had nerves of steel, of course, but he wasn’t an overly emotional man. That makes for a great astronaut, but not necessarily a great dramatic role. Gosling is fine in the role, as is Claire Foy as his first wife Janet. But it’s hard to say Armstrong is an interesting character. He rarely shows emotion, even reciting NASA standard lines about the safety of the flights to his kids the night before he leaves to prep for the moon landing. There’s a lot this movie does right. The shots on the moon and in space are gorgeous. The dangers involved are a clear emphasis, since everything had to go wrong before anything could go right. There are no bad performances. The problem, for me, is Armstrong himself is so quiet and reserved that it’s hard to get a grip on the character. It reminded me of last July’s The Catcher Was a Spy, a case where there was another real life figure whose overall personal privacy and quiet demeanor made him a hard man to really get into from a dramatic perspective despite his story being rather fascinating in its own right. First Man was a much, much better movie, but it still had that problem. I actually wished the movie had follows Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin around more. Aldrin comes across as something of an asshole, the guy who shoots his mouth off and doesn’t quite fit in with the others, hence the probable reason he wasn’t in the movie all that much, but he showed a lot more personality than many of the other characters. 8.5 out of 10 upward gazes.