Movie Review | First Man
Movie summary: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (IMDb)
First Man suffers from the same problem that all historical stories have: if the audience already knows how the story ends, how do you make it interesting? It can be done - I love Ron Howard's Rush, despite knowing how it was all going to end from the very start of the film.
The key to that film is that the two leads were fantastic characters that were both always entertaining or interesting to watch. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong is so emotionless, that he's only occasionally interesting and never really entertaining.
This is understandable, with Armstrong clearly suffering from the loss of his daughter for years afterwards, blocking out the world around him as a defensive mechanism to avoid completely breaking down, as almost happens on more than one occasion.
While it is understandable for Gosling's character to behave that way, it doesn't help the film in any way. It might've worked in a shorter film focusing more on Armstrong as a person and leaving the efforts to reach the moon in the background, but it just doesn't work in a film this long.
And First Man really does feel long. Knowing that they weren't going to be landing on the moon until the date it actually happened, it did become frustrating every time a date flashed up on the screen and I knew there was still some time to go.
The lack of any truly entertaining supporting characters doesn't help either. Corey Stoll's Buzz Aldrin comes the closest of the male cast to stealing the film, but doesn't really get the screen time to give the film the energy it's sorely lacking.
Claire Foy is unquestionably the key character in the film, and gives by far the strongest performance. Her Janet Armstrong is a force of nature who practically demands attention from the audience whenever she's on-screen. In comparison to Gosling's passivity, it would've been easy for her to come across as over-bearing, but Foy is so good that you never come even remotely close to viewing her character negatively.
From a technical standpoint, the film is pretty damn good, and morphs into utter brilliance when it switches to the full IMAX format for the final moon sequences. Some of the shots are so damn good, but are done in such an 'un-showy' manner by director Damien Chazelle that you won't really appreciate them until you think back to earlier scenes.
Part of the reason why is because there is less camera shaking in the full IMAX sequences. I understand that the camera needs to shake during the various test flights that happen, but there's no reason for it during some of the quieter scenes. It's not quite as bad as Detroit from last year, but was verging on becoming headache-inducing all the same.
The sound disappoints too, with a score I cannot remember at all, and the rockets never as thunderous as you'd hope. It really says something that the pre-film clip boasting about the incredible sound of IMAX is more impressive than the actual movie.
I do think I should say now that First Man isn't a bad film by any measure, and does enough to hold your interest for the duration - although this might depend on how interesting you find space travel. I enjoyed that side of things more than Armstrong's personal story and those final IMAX sequences are legitimately incredible to see.
First Man is an often brilliant film on the technical side, but suffers from being based on an historic event that everyone knows the outcome of, plus a near-emotionless main character. Claire Foy delivers the standout performance of the film, but even her greatness won't stop you from checking how long you've got to go until the film ends exactly as we know it will.