* * 1/2
Technically, there is no faulting First Man, Damien Chazelle’s portrait of Neil Armstrong in the 1960s leading up to his landing on the moon. The production design and VFX are astonishing, the acting is proficient, and the musical score, from Chazelle’s Whiplash and La La Land collaborator Justin Hurwitz, is appropriately monumental and moving. Dramatically, however, things are a different story. Like the NASA program itself, First Man is punctuated by exciting moments of achievement, but vast swathes of time are spent on the kind of work that is simply unexciting. Ultimately, engineering took us to the moon.
Neil Armstrong was an engineer, and, stereotypical to that profession, was stoic, level-headed, un-emotive. Again, these are not attributes well suited to drama, and Ryan Gosling doubles down on them, giving us one of the blankest, driest, quietest lead performances since Steve McQueen in Le Mans. The resulting film has long stretches of deep tedium.
Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, but unfortunately their relationship boils down to a re-tread of the worried wife trope from both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, and does not do well in the comparison. I loved those movies, and I adore 2001 and Gravity, which First Man nods to as well, but this astronaut drama left me very cold. Besides the story’s inherent wonkiness and Armstrong’s taciturn blankness, the film can’t avoid how well we know the ending. All the shaking camerawork in the world (and there’s a lot of camera shaking in this picture, as Chazelle keeps us inside the cabins for each of Armstrong’s atmospheric entries and exits) can’t fake suspense where there is none: Armstrong got to the moon, we all saw it, and he came home to see his wife again.
Thankfully – dramatically, that is – there was a deeply traumatic event in the Armstrongs’ lives that gives the film some emotional heft at the beginning and the end. But the long second act is a long second act, full of astronauts looking vaguely doubtful while keeping their chins solid. It’s hard to see what drew Chazelle, he of such musical exuberance, to such a dour subject, and such a dry film.