The story of Neil Armstrong, who on July 20, 1969, became the first person to step on the moon, is an awe-inspiring moment in history. The Space Race dominated a large part of the 60's and so this achievement was an event the whole world watched. Damien Chazelle's First Man is a respectable biopic of Armstrong that shows his craftsmanship as a filmmaker. And yet the film fails to lift off and make us care about this story. To put it bluntly, the film flatlines for a long chunk of its runtime.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a repressed man who can never fully express himself after the loss of his young daughter. He is a man who is driven to the stars because life on Earth is tragic. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) is left to raise their two boys as he moves further and further away from them. Gosling gives a muted performance, internalizing Armstrong's grief.
The film opens in 1961 when Armstrong broke records and bounced off the earth's stratosphere. From there, we follow him as he becomes the key astronaut in NASA's Gemini program. This eventually leads him to move to Houston and begin working on a way to the moon. The film focuses on many training simulations and test flights. We meet some other astronauts including Ed White (Jason Clarke). White and Armstrong were friends. When a failed Gemini flight kills his colleagues, we see how repressed Armstrong is. He giggles over a math equation instead of crying, for instance.
First Man makes this repression its focus over the moon landing. In doing so, the film never gives us the thrill or energy that this story inherently has. Chazelle has made a career out of telling stories of what men sacrifice to find success, whether it be psychological damage in Whiplash or giving up love in La La Land. Those films burst with energy and emotion. First Man has neither. While I respect his approach and craft here, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer never capture the rapturous achievement of Armstrong and his crew.
Gosling is part of the problem. While he can be effective in roles that mute his emotions, Blade Runner 2049 and Drive come to mind, where he feels to introverted. Stripped of emotions, his face is a blank too often and it creates a dull experience to watch him act in First Man. Foy is good but she is never given much to do than be the worried wife back at home.
Script and acting issues aside, First Man does have some impressive moments. It is full of Linus Sandgren's stunning cinematography. His images wonderfully evoke a sense of nostalgia without ever being too overt. The scenes of the lunar landing are also impressive, often putting the viewer in Armstrong's POV in ways few other space films have tried. The film's final sequence is an achievement but an empty one. First Man may have occasionally made me impressed by the technical work of its crew, but the film never stirred me or affected my emotions.