I really wanted to love First Man going in. But my reaction to seeing the movie was just a warm enjoyment of it. A lot of what I’m going to say in this review might imply that I think this was a bad movie, which I didn’t. Damien Chazelle had a distinct vision for the film and he was able to carry it out well. I just didn’t happen to buy into much of what he was trying to do.
In Damien Chazelle’s first attempt at a non-musical movie, he goes for something different from what he gave us in Whiplash and La La Land. A biopic on a major historical figure is a far reach from his previous work. Even so, his distinct vision for this movie is carried out well.
His vision was to focus on the failures and eventual successes of NASA during their attempts to go to the moon in the 1960s. But as the title suggests, Neil Armstrong is at the center. Unfortunately, even with the film’s almost two and a half hour runtime, the character of Neil really isn’t fleshed out very much. There is a lot of screen time devoted to NASA itself, which gives the hint that it is maybe a movie about the whole organization. But it also spends a hefty amount of time inside the Armstrong household, driving home that it wants you to feel sympathetic for him over the rest of the characters.
This movie is shot in such a way that it wants you to experience all of these failures and successes along with the characters. There are lots of close up shots, especially of Neil, that make you hold your breath like you’re walking on the moon without a helmet. Even more so, the shots inside any of the aircrafts are extremely shaky, as if they are from inside the cockpit. It creates a real sense of claustrophobia and tension that lasts basically through every scene. But at the same time, it makes it difficult to tell what is going on.
Through these close ups, there is some excellent acting. There isn’t a bad performance given. Ryan Gosling is unsurprisingly great as Neil Armstrong, but it really isn’t a standout of his career. He isn’t given much interesting work to do at all, with his thinly-written character. By the end, I found myself more on the side of seeing the moon landing for the sake of seeing the moon landing, instead of because I wanted to see the character achieve his goal.
First Man is well-made, and made with a specific style. This style may not be for everyone (it wasn’t for me), but its achievements can’t be denied.