First Man Review: One Giant, Predictable Leap for an Oscar
First Man Review: Director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling team up for another shot at an Oscar with their Neil Armstrong biopic.
Since I was a little kid, I have been a giant space nerd. There was a time I could give you brief bios on all the astronauts from Mercury to Apollo, and I had an embarrassingly large model collection of rockets that I assembled myself and painted. So along with some of the other, major releases of 2018 like Avengers: Infinity War and the 43 other superhero movies, First Man was high on my list of must-see movies. I’m not bringing that up to drop a hipster-like “I liked space before it was cool” type of thing, but rather to explain that, as it turns out, despite how it may seem, I may not be the exact market for this film.
But before we get to all of that, it’s worth noting what First Man is.
On the surface, First Man is a biopic about Neil Armstrong that chronicles his time in NASA, leading up to his walk on the lunar surface. But that’s just the vehicle. First Man is primarily an Oscar grab. Director Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling are back, possibly hoping to earn a real best picture nod to make up for their fake Oscar win with La La Land. And there would probably be some irony if they won with this film after losing to another called Moonlight.
But there’s a big difference between making a film meant for the Oscars and actually winning an Oscar.
First Man is the type of movie that will almost certainly be nominated for “Best Picture.” With nine films nominated each year and no clear frontrunners so far, it would be a snub if it wasn’t. It has an awards-drenched cast and crew, a famous story, and an almost experimental feel to it that does a few things in ways that haven’t been done before.
As for whether it will win or not, however, is a much different story.
First Man isn’t so much a single story as it is a series of scenes from Armstrong’s life stitched together over an extended period of time. It starts in 1961 when Armstrong was still a test pilot and the American space program was just seven astronauts deep. That number dropped to six when Deke Slayton was ruled out, but that positioned him as one of the top NASA officials and earned him a spot in this movie (to be played by Kyle Chandler).
But while Armstrong is busy risking his life in wacky jets, at home he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the decline of their young daughter Karen, as cancer slowly takes her. Following Karen’s death, Neil joins NASA as one of the Gemini astronauts and he and his family slowly become part of the astronaut lifestyle. The close-knit NASA society leads to a friendship with the first American to walk in space, Ed White (Jason Clarke), and a fellow Gemini astronaut, Elliot See (Patrick Fugit).
This was a good sign that the movie isn’t for me. If you know your NASA history, you some of the relationships head in directions dictated by famous real-life events. Rather than build to those moments and foreshadow them, they are introduced as a surprise. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just worth pointing out if you’re already well versed on the period.
The film follows Armstrong through his harrowing Gemini flight to the moment he sets foot on the moon alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). And through it all, his beleaguered family is along for the ride – but very much in the backseat.
Gosling plays Armstrong as taciturn and stoic, which is in keeping with the real person. It can be frustrating at times though, as it becomes tough to know why he is doing things. There are plenty of hints that he’s driven by the memory of his late daughter, but the emotion is always kept in check. He and his wife have one big fight and one romantic moment over the decde-long story, then share a lot of quiet looks and the odd grunt.
It’s a very deliberate choice, and it’s paired with a shaky cam that is meant to give you almost a voyeuristic feel. It’s also meant to demythologize the man and humanize him. If you’ve seen a lot of Oscar films over the last few years, it almost feels a little gimmicky but the Academy Awards eat this stuff up. This is also where my love of space worked against me.
First Man may be a decent, albeit trope filled character examination, but it takes the space side of things for granted and goes out of its way to strip some of the more romantic nature of the early days of space exploration. That’s an understandable choice for our modern cynicism, but it’s just kind of weird to see an incredibly interesting story – arguably one of the most compelling stories in human history – and then bury it under a deeper look at a guy that barely breaks triple digits in words spoken.
It’s kind of like making a movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor and then focusing on a picnic on the other side of the island.
Armstrong is the focus, as it should be, but the others surrounding him become incidental in a sloppy way. Sure, there’s only so much you can really do for a story this big in a two-hour movie, and maybe it’s just my space nerd that objects to only finding out in the credits that the character Ethan Embry played was actually Pete Conrad. But even if you don’t care about that, it takes a vibrant world and makes it feel fairly hollow and even dull. These are some of the most intelligent and courageous people in American history and most of them don’t even have a line or a reason to be there other than to stand in the background.
But personal opinions aside, Armstrong’s relationships are implied more than they are examined. It also leads to an ending that is meant to be cathartic but doesn’t really feel earned because motivations are never discussed and often seem at odds with his actions. It also uses tropes like the aforementioned shaky cam that feel more like they are part of an Oscar checklist than a necessary component – they could have been replaced and nothing would have changed. I half expected to hear dream-like whispering children and see Gosling slowly walk through a wheat field toward his destiny.
Negatives aside, there are a few outstanding moments to the film, mostly credit to the way the film shoots certain scenes. One in particular is the launch of Gemini 8, which is seen and heard through the astronaut’s POV only. It’s an experience, and you feel it as much as see or hear it. And that happens a few other times as well, especially during scenes involving space. It doesn’t salvage the rest of the film, but there are a few moments that are incredible.
First Man Review Conclusion
There’s an obvious comparison here. First Man is very reminiscent of Dunkirk, and it feels like it was heavily influenced by Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic. It tries some of the same tricks with good results, but it lacks the singular focus that Dunkirk offered. Where Nolan’s film had several scenes that fit together, First Man has several scenes that feel disjointed.
I fully admit to my bias here, and I wanted a movie more about Armstrong and the space program than Armstrong and his family. But even so, there are components that feel borrowed more than innovative, like the shaky cam, minimalist music, and close-ups of hand movements to name a few. First Man will still probably earn an Oscar nod, because it’s the type of film that always earns an Oscar nod, but whether it deserves it or not is a different story.
First Man is rated PG-13 with a running time of 138 minutes.