So my damned contact lens. Let me back up. Two weeks ago I threw out my neck. Bad. Fast forward to the day I watched Damien Chazelle’s First Man on a gloriously huge IMAX screen: I finally go and get a massage, face down, my eyeballs pressed against my eyelids as my therapist attempts to exorcise my pain. One of my contact lenses gets damaged in the process.
I then spend two hours and 21 minutes watching First Man while repeatedly blinking and wiping my eyes. Those around me who don’t know probably think I was making up for Neil Armstrong’s emotionally cold personality by crying my heart out. But no, I was just trying to watch this goddamned movie.
Which, by the way, is a sight to behold, a beautiful, poetic and often intense look at the mission to put a man on the moon, told through the sexy eyes of Ryan Gosling, whose version of Neil Armstrong can best be described as Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, only less violent.
Gosling is very good in the role, but most of First Man I sat wondering if Neil Armstrong was really this distant with those around him, most notably his wife and children. While undeniably smart, he has the personality of sawdust; he’s the kind of guy you’d invite to a party once to tell “that Moon story” and then never invite back because he has no personality. And Neil would probably be OK with that.
Claire Foy gets the obligatory wife role, and she does her best to kill every scene in which she’s in. Which she does. Foy is great and delivers a few “Oscar clip” moments, though her character seems to be included in First Man solely to prove that Armstrong is not a complete cyborg (or reinforce the theory?). Though by the end of the movie, where they still appear to have the shittiest happy marriage ever, you still aren’t sure.
Enough about the humans though. The real performance is the movie itself, which appears to live and breathe on screen. Chazelle’s third movie is another masterful achievement of filmmaking; the detail is extraordinary and the picture hums on pure energy. Whereas Apollo 13–one of my favorite movies of all times–is focused on the majestic nature of space travel, even when things go wrong, Chazelle opts for an intimate, gritty, dirty look from within the cockpit. Every time Armstrong straps into a cockpit, Chazelle dials up the fervor, all but ensuring you get sweaty between the butt cheeks as you hold on for dear life. And yet, in equal measure, he presents this story as a grand poem or song, willing to pull back to depict the grandeur of space.
Best Supporting Actor goes to the film’s mesmerizing score by Justin Hurwitz. While Chazelle may be the man behind the camera, Hurwitz is the glue, his song and dance the element that elevates every aspect of First Man.
And while I, like the rest of the world, will only pretend to understand the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, the people responsible for those aspects of the film better start working on their Oscar speeches, too.
As impressive as First Man is, the emotional flatness of its central character keeps the film from true greatness. The emotional payoff, with Armstrong doing what he does on the moon that won’t be discussed here (yes, there is a surprise!) doesn’t work at all. Why? Because, since it didn’t actually happen as far as my Internet research suggests, it’s a betrayal of the one scene Chazelle had to land without Hollywood interpretation.
First Man is like the less-fun version of Apollo 13, and there is nothing wrong with that. The movie thrives on its calculated, nuts and bolts look at the space race. But Chazelle seems to not entirely know what to with his central character when outside the cockpit; if Neil Armstrong was truly as reserved and downtrodden as the film suggests, my mistake, but if this on-screen incarnation of a global hero was built simply for dramatic effect, the physics don’t entirely add up.
P.S. Buzz Aldrin was apparently a dick and I love him all the more for it. I look forward to seeing Second Man hit theaters next year.
P.S.S. Poor Michael Collins. People still don’t know his name.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.