First Man Review: The Dark Side of the Moon
First Man is the highly anticipated new film from Whiplash and La La Land Director Damien Chazelle. This time around, Chazelle is taking on the science fiction genre with the story of Neil Armstrong and what his life was like leading up to that historic trip to the moon. First Man stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet.
Like most film aficionados, I consider myself a big fan of Damien Chazelle because I love Whiplash and La La Land so damn much. First Man was a project that I heard a lot about but was somewhat leery of considering it was the first time that Chazelle was working with a major studio to release a film. I was very underwhelmed by the teaser trailer for First Man, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was still very excited to see the film. This is why I made it such a priority to catch the first screening of the film at Telluride.
First Man is a strange film to review because, on the one hand, I want to praise it for being a technical masterpiece but on the other, it lacks character development and emotion. The film opens on Armstrong controlling a NASA plane and the way that the scene is shot makes the viewer feel as though they are in that cockpit alongside Neil Armstrong.
Shortly after this intense and somewhat claustrophobic opening, we meet Neil’s wife Janet as well as his children. We learn that Neil’s daughter is very sick and a few short minutes later, there is a scene showing that she has passed away. Neil breaks down crying, and it is at this point where I found myself feeling very disconnected from Neil as well as his story. The film spends no time whatsoever building or developing the relationship between Neil and his wife or Neil and his kids. Is it sad that his daughter died? Absolutely, but I didn’t feel any emotion towards her death because I didn’t know anything about her and as a result, I found myself struggling to get behind the man known as Neil Armstrong.
After this scene, Neil Armstrong came across as a complete jerk who didn’t even ask his wife or other children if they were ok. Instead, he abandoned them to follow his dream. I’m not saying that I expected Armstrong to be father or husband of the year but come on, give me something to latch onto or a reason to want to go on this two-plus hour journey with him.
After the death of his daughter, Armstrong goes back to NASA and asks to be part of various projects. He gets in and makes some friends along the way. The scenes inside the simulators are very in your face and just like the opening feel as though you are experiencing the simulation first hand. There are many up-close shots of things such as a fly on Armstrong’s helmet or the screws holding the ceiling of the simulator together. These moments are all very well shot because they feel like the viewer is part of the experience.
However, there are multiple characters introduced throughout the rest of the film, and like Janet and Neil’s children, none of them are developed. When something terrible happens to Elliot (Patrick Fugit) early on, as a viewer you react by saying “oh, no” but you don’t have that feeling of devastation which is what I expected to feel whenever someone was injured or died. At no point during the entire film are you given an emotional attachment to any of these characters, including Neil Armstrong. The astronaut characters are never developed into anything more than people who happen to work at NASA.
Listen, I understand that the majority of the film is about Neil following his passion and achieve his dreams, but this is Whiplash and La La Land in space without the emotion or the incredible performances. I’m starting to notice a trend in Chazelle’s films where his characters are always obsessed with their passion and don’t care about much else. Think about Whiplash and think about La La Land, the characters in these films were so driven by their passion that they failed to have a happy life outside their work. The same themes follow Chazelle from film to film.
Another issue with the film that builds upon my problem with the lack of character development and emotion is the chemistry between the characters. Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy have zero chemistry together. Every single time that Foy is on-screen, she has a pouty look on her face and seems angry. The scene where she yells at Gosling feels so forced because you never see her display any emotion. I wish the film spent like 10 to 15 minutes developing their marriage and what their life was like. This would have allowed the viewer to get behind these characters and root for them.
Regarding visuals, Chazelle got a lesson or two from Steven Spielberg handbook. The shots in space are so exquisite and aren’t those vast wide shots that you tend to see in films like this one. The way that Chazelle films being in space feels, unlike anything that you have seen before. It’s almost like he created an independent version of a big budget space movie. Each shot in space doesn’t feel vast but rather close and personal. Chazelle knows how to work that camera and uniquely captures rocket ships and space.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 10 minutes, First Man marks the first time that I have been disappointed with a Damien Chazelle film. The technical elements are stunning; the way that Chazelle captures the landing on the moon, as well as the Gemini 8, is spectacular. However, the performances, emotion, and story are all lacking this time around. When you take away all the amazing visuals, all you have left is a story about a passionate and selfish man that would rather pursue his passion than focus on his family. It’s Damien Chazelle 101, and sadly for that reason, I can only give this film a slight recommendation for the visual and technical aspects alone.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for First Man is a 6 out of 10.