Saturday 27 October 2018

Movie Review: First Man (2018)

A biographical drama, First Man recounts the story of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, in the years leading up to the seminal Apollo 11 mission.

It's 1961, and NASA test pilot Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) experiences a series of in-flight mishaps. At home, tragedy strikes with the death of his young daughter from cancer. A detail-oriented and introverted aeronautical engineer, Armstrong signs up for the Gemini program, the first phase of the US push to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) relocate to Houston, where he strikes up loose friendships with other astronauts-in-training, including Ed White (Jason Clarke).

The Gemini program, guided by Chief Astronaut Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and Director Robert Gilruth (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), experiences highs and lows, and the threat of serious mishaps is never far. The Apollo program then launches, and along with the more convivial Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Armstrong is in prime contention to lead the first mission to the moon. But he remains aloof and unwilling to communicate openly with his family.

Directed by Damien Chazelle and based on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is, as the title implies, more about the man than the mission. It's an intriguingly personal perspective on what is generally portrayed as a triumphant national endeavour. Rather than the more gung-ho astronaut spirit featured in movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, Chazelle delves into the emotional toll of going to work in a pioneering program where death was a constant companion, every phone call and door knock pregnant with potential for bad news, and colleagues almost routinely did not come home to their families at the end of the day.

With his methodical, detail-oriented and dogged determination to get the job done, Armstrong was perfectly placed for success, but at a price. His coldly analytical approach left no space for emotion, and as much as he was a loving husband and father, expressing feelings, sharing thoughts and conveying risks were simply not in his toolbox. As the space program heats up, his home mannerisms get colder.

With the focus on a single individual, Chazelle runs into problems with pacing and context. The film is stubbornly not interested in any characters other than Neil and Janet. The multitude of other astronauts and space program officials are essentially faceless and colourless, with only Ed White barely making it over the line as a defined person.

Equally, Chazelle largely neglects to explain the overarching space program, the political Cold War space context or the purpose of the individual missions. The enormity of the endeavor and the scientific challenges receive perhaps two scenes lasting less than a minute each. This becomes a significant problem when Chazelle invests inordinate screentime with Armstrong strapped into the shaky and noisy spacecrafts. The overall flight objectives and the astronaut's skills in achieving them are reduced to repetitive scenes of clicking random switches and observing jerky dials.

As a result, First Man is too long at 141 minutes. The story is simply not rich enough to justify the length, and most of the scenes go on for longer than they need to. Gosling and Foy do provide some excellent private moments as a couple linked by a strong but mostly quiet bond, while Chazelle crafts a sumptuous climax with the moon landing and subsequent scenes on the lunar surface. First Man does leave footprints in new areas, but never quite soars.

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