A Neil Armstrong biopic culminating in the monumental Apollo 11 mission to the moon has no reason to leave a viewer cold, and yet this is exactly what has happened with "First Man." For a director whose past work has been radiant and alive (2014's "Whiplash
" and 2016's "La La Land
"), Damien Chazelle loses his way this time in stodgy convention. Josh Singer's (2013's "The Fifth Estate
") screenplay, adapted from the book "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" by James R. Hansen, fails to bring much depth to its human subject. As this picture sees it, who Armstrong is as a person, as a father and husband, and as an astronaut stems solely from the untimely 1962 death of his toddler daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford). Insight into his past and his love for space exploration are otherwise in such short order, he might as well be a blank canvas.
The narrative opens with a jolt, a perilous 1961 NASA aircraft test Armstrong performed, and yet something is amiss from the start. Without providing this basis for what is happening until the end of the scene, what should be frightening, tense and understandably chaotic is instead jarring, frenetic and self-aware, feeling more like a dream sequence than a legitimate situation of life-or-death stakes. The story that follows is decidedly episodic, spanning eight years (through the aforementioned Apollo 11 voyage in July 1969) as it touches upon major events which occurred to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) without actually capturing the full breadth of his life or his relationships with wife Janet (Claire Foy) and surviving sons Eric (Gavin Warren, Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Blodgett). There's Gemini 8, Armstrong's first mission to space alongside pilot Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott). There is the fiery tragedy which befalls Apollo 1, taking the lives of some of Armstrong's friends and colleagues. And there is Apollo 11, portrayed in a third act that hasn't the tension, the reverence, or the emotional gravity it should. As for Armstrong's fellow crew members, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), they are so underdeveloped as to be virtual walk-ons.
As written, Neil Armstrong is not a particularly dynamic figure. He is guarded and buttoned-up, aloof toward his family, and whatever layers are brought to the character can be attributed to Ryan Gosling's (2017's "Blade Runner 2049
") attuned performance. As restrained as Neil ultimately is, Gosling poignantly reveals the private despair of his protagonist. Alas, his life seems to revolve entirely around two things: his grief over the loss of his daughter, who passed away from pneumonia after a battle with cancer, and his dedication to a profession that feels less like an outright passion than a coping mechanism for escaping his unhappiness at home.
Claire Foy (2011's "Season of the Witch
") is an actor of nuance and sensitivity; even in her stillness, she is able to impart a world of feeling. What she cannot do is make up for a lack of worthwhile material. As the dutiful yet outspoken Janet, Foy is stranded in a standard "wife" role. Their sons are barely sketched and interchangeable, on hand to occasionally ask their dad if he wants to play with them, usually at the most inopportune times. On screen, Neil's fathering is reduced to someone who doesn't have time for his kids even as he obsesses over Karen, a man who has to be begged by Janet to talk to them before he leaves for a mission from which he may very well not be returning home. Perhaps this is the whole point of the story in question, that he isn't able to give himself to his family until he learns to let go of the daughter no longer with them, but there is no excuse for how cursorily Janet, Eric and Mark are actualized.
As a fly-on-the-wall highlight reel of NASA workers and astronauts striving to change space exploration forever in the 1960s, "First Man" is technically proficient, well-shot by Linus Sandgren (2017's "Battle of the Sexes
"). As a taut adventure-thriller, it barely gets out of first gear (those seeking historical space-set suspense or grandeur would be best to stick to 1995's "Apollo 13"). As an intimate family drama, it is curiously sterile, a slog through half-formed tropes and stick figures posing as people. At its center, naturally, is Neil Armstrong. His achievements are well-knownhe was, after all, the first man to walk on the moonbut as the focal point of a theatrical feature he deserved better than the one-note sketch provided here. When Armstrong reaches his destination during the climax, it should be an awe-inspiring moment with all the pomp and circumstance one would expect from such a groundbreaking event. What we get instead is a fleeting afterthought. "First Man" is a great idea in search of a film to match.