Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a biographical drama that follows Neil Armstrong in the decade leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to land a man on the moon (1969), but while it’s strong on mission, and technically dazzling, it’s weak on biography. Who was Armstrong the person? What made him hell-bent on such peril? Did he fear never returning? As portrayed here, he’s essentially yet another strong, detached, emotionally unavailable man of few words, so this is a set-piece action film at heart. A Mission Possible, if you like.
Unlike Chazelle’s previous two hits (Whiplash, La La Land), the director himself did not write the screenplay. Instead, it’s been adapted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s book on Armstrong. Chazelle wanted a script that was ‘visceral’, Singer has said, and the opening is certainly that. It opens in the early 1960s when Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is an engineering pilot on a test flight into the atmosphere. He is squashed claustrophobically inside the cockpit as the capsule throbs, lurches, rattles and hurtles violently. The scene from the cramped window goes from black to blue sky then black again as he’s thrust up, down, up. It is thoroughly Dunkirk-ian, as it puts you right there, and it’s so plainly terrifying and so plainly high risk that you will want to know: who would sign up for this? Two hours and 21 minutes later, you do have something of an answer and it’s: one hell of a bore.
The film divides narratively, telling the story of Apollo on the one hand and the story of Armstrong’s personal life on the other. He is married to Janet (Claire Foy) and they’re recently bereaved, having just lost their two-year-old daughter Karen to a brain tumour. The film is desperate to link this event to Armstrong signing up as an astronaut. He can’t talk about his daughter’s death, and accepting dangerous assignments is his coping mechanism? That’s his mind set, they’d have us believe. But it just doesn’t wash. It’s so over-determined and over-egged that all you see is the filmmakers’ intent. It doesn’t feel true, possibly because it isn’t true. For instance, he puts away a keepsake of Karen that will later come into play in a way which, I now know, has no basis in fact whatsoever. And he all but ignores his other two children. Mostly, as portrayed here, he’s a man who has nothing to say to anyone, not even his astronaut colleagues. I quite liked the look of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), I must say. He’s lively, at least. Perhaps a more interesting film would have been Second Man?
There are moments of awe, admittedly, and you will wonder afresh at such a magnificent achievement, but it still becomes a chronological plod. It’s test mission after test mission, set-piece after set-piece, alternating with scenes reminding us of the personal pain Armstrong endures, if we can buy it. (Armstrong may not wish to talk about Karen, but Chazelle does, all the time.) Meanwhile, Armstrong’s heroic, monosyllabic, masculine credentials are established over and over, to the point where it becomes obnoxious and repetitive, plus this is never dramatically exciting. We know how it ends (unless it was all a hoax!) but unlike a Peter Morgan script, say, this doesn’t manage to establish tension even so. And the marriage goes nowhere too. At one point Janet loses it totally (go, Janet, go!), throws a briefcase against a wall, makes her husband sit down to tell their sons he may not be coming back. But there is never any follow-up and no repercussions, and he did inform his sons as if he were hosting a press conference. Perhaps the real Armstrong was this buttoned up. From what I’ve read, he was certainly an extremely private man. Good for him, but it’s not so good for us. Or it could just be that the film failed to find a way in. For the first time ever, I was longing for some back story, but it never arrived.
As for the performances, Foy is the star, to my mind. Charged with delivering emotion where there would otherwise be none, she does just that, wonderfully. And Gosling? The role is so passive and affectless and single-note it’s hard to say. We know only one thing for certain and it is this: the first person on the moon was, if this is anything to go by, a total bore.