‘First Man’ Struggles to Achieve Liftoff

“First Man” depicts the career of astronaut Neil Armstrong (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. Claire Foy plays his wife while Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds and Lukas Haas also star and Damien Chazelle directs.

When you look up the checklist for Oscar films, this hits a lot of the boxes. Academy Award winning/nominated director and leading man? Check. Period piece? Check. Real life story? Check. Fall release? Check. And I’m sure at the end of the day this will rack up the nominations, at least in the technical department, but I’m just not so sure it’ll all be worth it…

Ryan Gosling is a very talented actor but his skills are best suited in the romantic-comedy genre, seeing as “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “La La Land” are two of his best and most charismatic performances and the likes of “Blade Runner 2049” didn’t do him many favors. As Neil Armstrong, Gosling is timid and reserved, not too often showing his frustration or sadness about the growing tolls the space race is taking on him and his family. There are a few select instances where he drops the act and breaks down, allowing Gosling to demonstrate his emotional range as an actor, but most of the time it is the mousy Gosling we know from, say, “Gangster Squad.”

As Armstrong’s wife Janet, Claire Foy (best known for “The Crown” and will be seen next month in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”) gets to show a wider and more constant range of emotions, yelling at Neil’s commanding officers at NASA headquarters (the “you’re a bunch of boys!” line from the trailer) and shouting at Neil to properly say goodbye to their sons.

The film looks and feels like the 1960s, due in large part to how Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren chose to shoot it. Much of the film is shot using (what I think) is 16 and 35mm film, giving scenes a grainy, almost “home movie” feel, as well as a warm or cold tint, depending. However when we get into space things shift to digital, becoming crisp and clear (and very big if you see it in IMAX like I did), showing the contrast of the bold new world Armstrong was embarking into. The sequence where they land on the moon and take the first step out is awe-inspiring, and it was one of the moments where every person in the theater dares not make a sound.

So the film looks great and is well acted, what is wrong with it? Well, only half of it really works. The parts where we see all the stresses and behind the scenes training that went into the moon mission are very well done and range from entertaining to intense. However the film spends a lot of time with Armstrong’s family and friends and the drama doesn’t always land as much as Chazelle clearly hoped. Some of it gets repetitive but mostly is just doesn’t grab you or give you a real reason to care outside some standard movie tropes.

One random thing of note that almost acts as a microcosm of the film: half the editing and sound mixing is masterful, with all the loose bolts and creaky walls of the rockets making Armstrong’s commands from Houston nearly impossible to make out, as I’m sure was the case. However in other scenes, like one inside at the kitchen table, the outside rain is given too much effect and drowns out some dialogue of characters sitting a mere two feet from each other.

“First Man” is an honorable and respectful film that pays tribute to the men who made one of the ultimate accomplishments in human history, and solidified America’s place as the world’s greatest nation. However when the film drifts away from the mission and tries to get more personal it just doesn’t work nearly as well, and makes everything as a whole feel a but underwhelming.

Critic’s Grade: C+