The controversy about Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” not including Old Glory on the lunar surface isn’t entirely accurate (for the version I saw, at least). It’s true that the movie doesn’t actually show the American flag getting placed on the moon, and instead understates that famous moment by cutting to a far-away wide shot in which the flag is already standing next to the shuttle. The film choosing not to show the flag getting planted is puzzling, sure, but even if Damien Chazelle’s film did entirely omit that iconic image, it’d be the least of the movie’s problems.
“First Man” isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t make the viewer remember how he felt leaving the theater like Chazelle’s previous efforts. “Whiplash” made me feel exhilarated. “La La Land” made me feel romantic. “First Man” left me cold as space. More disappointing than not living up to the expectations set forth by his previous movies is that the script for “First Man” while sturdy with its narrative and theme, is hamstrung by non-acting and poor direction.
Ryan Gosling teams up with Chazelle for a second time in the lead role of Neil Armstrong. As the film begins, Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lose their daughter to a brain tumor. For a fresh start, the family moves to Houston when Armstrong is accepted into Project Gemini, NASA’s plan to surpass the Soviet Union in the space race by putting a man on the moon. The film covers most of the 1960s and Armstrong loses many friends as fellow astronauts die in the tests leading up to Apollo 11.
Chazelle’s script clearly revolves around the theme of dealing with death, but Ryan Gosling often looks like he’s not dealing with a damn thing. When Gosling brought his silent, brooding stare and occasionally explosive ferocity to the role of the Driver in the 2011 art-house action film “Drive,” he showed the world what has since become something of a trademark acting style. That said, his use of that laconic style post-“Drive” has been less rewarding. Gosling certainly has more lines in “First Man” than he did in “Drive,” but this time his lack of emoting comes off as boredom rather than understatement. This is most apparent during a scene where Armstrong’s wife argues with him to tell their sons that he may not return from the Apollo 11 mission. Even when she pitches an object across the room, he can’t manage as much as an exhaustive sigh.
This scene is also a bad moment for British actress Claire Foy, who up until this scene assuredly commands an American accent. Despite her best efforts, her chemistry with Gosling is less than zero.
However, most of the blame for the film’s shortcomings must go to writer-director Damien Chazelle. Chazelle the writer does a fine job of taking a focused angle on his protagonist while necessarily showing the Cold War anxiety of the space race. As the late sixties approaches, Chazelle also shows some of the hippies’ opposition to the space program. Chazelle doesn’t dwell on any of this long enough to suggest any sort of position on the matter, however, and the political climate surrounding Project Gemini always feels like a distant second to Armstrong’s personal story.
Perhaps Chazelle tried to drive home the story’s personal nature by shooting with handheld camerawork, but whatever the reason his direction comes off as distracting rather than engrossing. For moments as innocuous as Mrs. Armstrong walking across the street to visit a neighbor, Chazelle indulges in letting the camera shake as if he were replaced by Paul Greengrass. Chazelle’s lead actors may not gel on screen, but his visual approach does them no favors.
It’s no good to the audience either, since the space travel sequences are mostly comprised of shots looking out the shuttle window into the vacuum of space, intercut with Gosling looking a bit pained, or maybe not (the stupid helmet makes it hard to tell), while bathed in strobing light. I don’t recommend this movie if you have epilepsy.
The ending also makes no sense. Without spoiling the particulars, I’ll put it like this. If you were a wife and your husband went on a suicidal mission to the moon and against all odds made it back to earth alive, what would your reaction be? If some variation of “happy” is your answer, congratulations, you understand humans better than Damien Chazelle does.