Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “First Man” (2018)

Director Damien Chazelle’s 2018 biopic tells the “untold story” of the world’s most famous astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and documents the important events which led to the monumental moment seen around the world: when man first walked on the moon. The film looks at the numerous launches that NASA went through, often losing lives in their efforts to beat the Soviet Union in the space race, and closer to home, Armstrong himself faces several challenges as he endures hardships and tragedies and his unwavering determination to reach the moon puts a great strain on his relationship with his children and his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

In all honesty, I’ve never been particularly interested in the game changing events of 1969; obviously, I know that it’s a very important historical moment but otherwise, I previously thought of that particular era as being quite dusty – not something that immediately sparks my interest. But of course, it was entirely possible for this modern release to change my outlook, given its prolific cast, crew and the overall positive buzz already surrounding it. Plus, I really liked Hidden Figures, so you never know . . .

In the end, First Man technically has a lot going for it, mostly due to its mighty space-set sequences as well as certain “untold truths” of Neil Armstrong’s life being brought to light, but the film didn’t do nearly enough to spark my interest in the subject and, despite a fair amount of impressive cinematic moments, the film was otherwise quite dry, dusty and unremarkable – nothing to suggest a masterpiece, I’m afraid to say.

Starting with the positives, First Man does well in educating the audience about the private life of the world’s most famous astronaut and we realise how he was surrounded by so much death and tragedy, losing members of his family as well as so many friends and colleagues. The film also succeeds in juxtaposing scenes of Armstrong progressing in his training, moving closer towards his final goal, against moments of his family disintegrating – showing how his wife Janet fought to lead her family while he was away, all of which gives the film some deep meaning. Lastly, the film makes a fair attempt to show just how hard it was for Armstrong’s family to accept the possibility of Neil never coming home (much like the families of Only the Brave, I suppose) and while these scenes don’t hit as hard as they could have, the effort to show the “human side” of this story is commendable and the way in which Neil speaks to his kids, speaking in a professional manner and with prepared remarks as if he was participating in a press conference, is a unique touch that shows the worrying emotional distance between him and his family.

But where the movie truly comes to life is in a handful of moments set in space. There’s an early sequence involving a docking procedure that’s really quite neat (unabashedly channelling Kubrick by creating something of a space ballet, making use of Justin Hurwitz’s Strauss inspired score) and it gets even more intriguing and visceral when trouble occurs and events get unrelentingly dizzying, making us feel the unpredictable danger that the astronauts faced and getting us involved in the action. And of course, there’s the all important moon landing sequence and it’s all accomplished and technically proficient, making very good use of both Hurwitz’s score and unsettling silence as well as careful lighting and capable camerawork.

Overall, while it’s not as mind blowing or as epic as something like Gravity, the space sequences allow the film to soar and they elevate the film enough when needed.

But in other areas, I often found First Man a trial to get through because the scenes set on Earth aren’t very interesting and in some stretches, events even get quite boring. A film like Hidden Figures demonstrated how a film essentially about maths, physics, calculations and the like can be perfectly intriguing when balanced against solid human drama (and excellent performances) but in First Man, the technical talk comes across as dull and the human drama, though sporadically enlightening, is long winded and stale and to me, much of the film felt like a big screen adaptation of some old history book. Again, maybe I’m prejudiced because I had little interest about this particular era going in, but the Earth-set drama here isn’t worth the big screen treatment in my opinion and Chazelle doesn’t make it fascinating enough to warrant making a film about it all.

And how many shots of Ryan Gosling looking at the distant moon do we need? Yes, we get it: one day you’ll make it there!

First Man has a cast full of recognisable names and they all give solid performances, nothing Oscar worthy but still commited and strong. As the (first) man of the moment, Ryan Gosling gets one of his most mature roles to date and he plays the role of Neil Armstrong well, remaining stoic, professional and steadfast in his mission to make it to the moon while also quietly dealing with loss in other scenes, showing enough subtle emotion. Alongside, Claire Foy often steals his spotlight as Janet Armstrong, a character who constantly has to prepare her family for the worst case scenario, remaining the stable “woman behind the man” but still not afraid to lay down the law with NASA employees and her husband, demanding him to tell their kids the truth about the danger he faces.

The rest of the cast is made up of recognisable names such as Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Ciarán Hinds, Pablo Schreiber and Christopher Abbott and they all contribute grounded and unshowy performances, resulting in a decent ensemble cast.

On a technical level, the film is everything you’d expect a big budget biopic to be: the grainy cinematography and production design helps capture the atmosphere of the 60s, the direction and camerawork is effective in ramping up the tension when the need arises, and Justin Hurwitz’s score adds a certain unique flavour to proceedings – using instruments such as a theramin, Moog synthesizer and (what I’m guessing is) a harp (I could be wrong. I’m no musician) to really make those space scenes come to life.

So while First Man will surely impress audiences and film critics alike, I can’t really get on board the hype train for this one. Those scenes in space are undeniably impressive and the film does well in “filling in the blanks” by telling the untold tale of the world’s most famous astronaut but the film was a bit too stale and “biopic-y” for my liking; it doesn’t have the exhilaratingly epic nature of Gravity nor the fascinating Earthbound tale and brilliant casting of Hidden Figures and for me, it doesn’t quite do enough to justify its existence. But its technical prowess, dedicated cast and honest, well intentioned story pushes it into four star territory.

A little stale, dull and trying in places but it’s elevated by some impressive space scenes, great music, a dedicated cast, and a well meaning story.

★ ★ ★ ★

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