Review of First Man: “I wanted to like this movie.”

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By Jamie Traner

Here we go. I’ll start by saying that I wanted to like this movie. Space and NASA and all the physics of everything has always fascinated me. Not to mention director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Whiplash are some of my most consistent go-to’s, but this film was draining.

It opens on a flight test (though it takes quite a while to determine what is happening. Is it a simulation? A plane? A shuttle? Not clear) into the atmosphere and just ever so slightly above the atmosphere. Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, is hardly recognizable in the small frame. The sound of engines scream, the frame shakes, and all of a sudden the chaos disappears. He has exited the atmosphere. These first two minutes, albeit the ambiguity of location and mission, create phenomenal tension that excites the audience: we’re on a ride!

Nope.

While it is well known that Armstrong led a reserved lifestyle– proving stoic even amongst his family and friends. However, a lesser known fact is that Neil and his wife Janet, Claire Foy, had a daughter, Karen, played by Lucy Stafford, who passed at a young age from cancer. In the early stages of First Man, Karen passes, and as she does, Neil takes the little girl’s bracelet and kindly places it in his armoire drawer.

While this devastation greatly impacted Neil’s internal turmoil, the movie lingers on funeral frames in a detached way that affects the audience, but, in my humble opinion, does not fully grasp the grief of Janet or Neil, or their other son. Furthermore, as this saga continues, Neil rarely, if ever, spoke of Karen, and continued his stonewall front. It must be noted, the ideals of trauma are accurately portrayed in this film, as Neil’s daughter will be occasionally mentioned, or a small trigger may impact him to envision his daughter, and then how he copes with the lingering memories. Though it is addressed, these moments occur for perhaps a second, and only twice, leaving us to wonder why this was a stressed plot point.

This issue of prolonged shots/ takes is seen throughout First Man. From takes in training, tragedy, travel, and the moon, there are often frames that linger just enough to make audiences uncomfortable. It isn’t that the film lacks beauty, the shots are visually effective. It isn’t that the film lacks attention to the reality of the mission. It simply lacks the balance it needs between depth of character/story and how they are visually represented.

Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong was beautiful, with research and countless hours spent with his survived friends and family, the dedication is clear on screen.

Yet, however phenomenal Gosling’s performance may be, the “bland” external conflict of Armstrong should not have been as palpable. The story fell flat, and there was minimal support of the much needed conflict. Obstacles often crawled past the screen, unrecognizable as plot points at all. Yes, this may have been the tone Armstrong took in reality, but audiences do not flock to a theater to watch real-time reactions. The conflict was far too passive and the progression of Neil’s character was excruciatingly subtle, like watching grass grow.

Janet, on the other hand, was a powerful female force of whom I’d hoped to see more. She spoke her mind and openly loved her husband and children. She was firm in her beliefs but soft in her demeanor. More screen time for Foy would not have been wasted.

But without the more dynamic characters, like Janet, I felt like I was being dragged, against my will, back into a science class on a day when the hungover teacher rolled in the VCR. Brutal takes that ran just ever. So. long. By the end when there were detailed malfunctions or detailed operations of mechanics of the shuttles, crafts, etc. I was physically upset, fighting back the urge to scream “YEAH WE GET IT! SPACE! ENGINEERING! BYEEE!” After a quick inner dialogue, that seemed unprofessional.

The technicalities of the endeavor are, excuse the pun, out of this world, but without the necessary explanation (or a necessary-evil dance around exposition), casual, general movie-going audiences will not understand, will not pick-up-on, and will not care about how phenomenally detailed and accurate the science may be– and certainly not at the expense of plot or action.

There were nearly enough great interactions between Gosling, his fellow astronauts, him and Janet, and him and his children, but all that is for naught because by the end I couldn’t remember the good scenes, as I was too busy begging for it to end.

What was a 141 minute movie should have been maximum 110. And that’s just cutting down on the brutally long takes of single views.

I fell asleep once, and my guest to the screening fell asleep twice. I checked my watch three times, and many audience members got up to use the restroom, and some simply did not return.

HERE LIES A SPOILER. IF YOU DO NOT CARE TO READ A SPOILER PLEASE PASS THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH.

Once on the moon, though not explicitly explained in the film, it is fairly well known that the astronauts had an agenda planned down to the minute. Despite his nearly religious attention to rules and protocol, Armstrong wanders off for a chunk of time to a nearby crater, without ever explaining what he did. Armstrong also never released to the public what objects he took with him to the moon. And now comes the “seriously?”. That bracelet we previously mentioned? He pulls it out of his suit’s pocket and stares wistfully into the abyss… not there yet… he spends MANY BEATS. One might say too many beats before releasing the bracelet to its eternal resting place on the moon. Are you kidding?! Cameron -comma- James introduced this trope almost shot-for-shot in a little title from 1997 you may have heard of, Titanic. While Rose released her heart to the ocean after a whirlwind struggle, apparently the new artist’s interpretation was to drop the bracelet in one of the biggest eyerolls of my theater-attending career. I was fuming.

END OF SPOILER. YOU CAN REJOIN US HERE.

2.5/5 stars. The only saving graces being that I am a nerd and I enjoyed looking at the shuttles, and despite the vanilla character, Ryan Gosling nailed the portrayal. Niche market.

Post Credits:

Once credits kicked up, we were introduced to a man from NASA, whose name I unfortunately did not catch, director Damien Chazelle, and leading man Ryan Gosling for a Q&A.

They will be labeled as NASA, Chazelle, and Gosling, for the sake of the following:

NASA wasted no time thanking Chazelle for ”the way NASA is portrayed.” and then quickly dives in, asking what it was that drew Chazelle to this project? It is quite a departure from Whiplash and La La Land.

Chazelle chuckled while explaining that it was that exactly why he chose it: the departure from his previous projects.

Gosling spoke about how phenomenal Chazelle did explaining and collaborating to accurately portray how hard earned and sacrificed this mission to the moon was. Gosling’s ability to stay and speak with ‘the real’ Janet and Neil and how the vision of Chazelle to follow Neil’s intimate life as opposed to the overall mission was inspiring.

NASA then asked about the process of shooting the moon. [You mean to say they didn’t shoot on location?]

This sparked a bit of comic relief from the two guests. Chazelle cracked a joke that “the dirty secret is that the Moon is in Atlanta.” To which Gosling replied, “And all of space is in Tyler Perry Studios.”

Chazelle, “The moon itself was a quarry 30 minutes outside of ATL proper. We shot at night with a giant bright light from one side to simulate the sun.” But scouts failed to express the occasional snowfall in Georgia and filming the scene was postponed one week, and the crew was forced to switch locations and scenes in the interim.

Our NASA host turned the hot seat to Gosling. “How do you feel about the flex across Blade Runner, being abducted on SNL, to First Man?” With an opportunity to discuss Gosling’s career in depth, perhaps open the floor to some humorous stories, his only reply was , “It was fun.” Alrighty, then.

Gosling was then asked if it was challenging to play such a famously remote man.

He assured the audience that it was, but that the production hosted experts on set, the research and time spent with the family and friends of Neil were not overlooked, and he even was able to spend some time with Janet Armstrong herself before she passed.

While it was a difficult character, Gosling ‘s take on the man was he was “deeply humble and brilliant – hard to relate, but an honor [to play].”

While there was a fair bit of remaining banter across subjects of astronaut Ed White, the loss of friends and family, humanity of the story, praises to the book on which the film is based (First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen), etc. I’ll leave the commentary at that. The movie, for all involved, was an honor.

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