First Man leaves you as cold as the outer space

DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor — There’s little more frustrating than when a well-made, technically proficient film, made and acted by talented people with a clear passion for the material, leaves you as a viewer cold. This is, unfortunately, my reaction to Damien Chazelle’s First Man; I watched the film when it first premiered in theaters, and now about a year later, I attended the DFS screening, hoping that this second watch might open my eyes and warm my feelings to the film. Alas, like last time, the film only captured in fleeting moments.

A biopic about Neil Armstrong, First Man naturally places its primary focus on the 1969 moon landing and the events leading up to it thereof, but doesn’t constrain itself from looking on Armstrong’s personal life; the death of his two-year-old daughter Karen in the opening minutes shapes the direction of the film for the rest of its running time. 

Armstrong is played by Ryan Gosling, who has shown considerable range across his last handful of roles but plays this part with a detached, straight-facedness. This makes sense for how the movie is written, as great emphasis is placed on the losses Armstrong faces (from his daughter to more than a few of his fellow pilots), but the stoicism generates a disconnect. Indeed, the highlight of Gosling’s performance for me was the early scenes of Karen Armstrong’s funeral, where he quite convincingly plays a man broken by an unbearable loss.

Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, who receives near tantamount focus as her husband, which Foy, of course, handles ably. The rest of the cast is stuffed with strong character actors, from Ciarán Hinds to Kyle Chandler to Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, all of whom do their best in adding life to largely uniform NASA characters. However, if you’re at all keen to see the movie, the technical aspects are likely what drew you.

I’ll concede that First Man can’t be faulted on this end; the flight sequences, culminating in the moon landing in the final twenty minutes, are all purposefully intense viewing, bolstered by Justin Hurwitz’s simultaneously foreboding and uplifting score. The dedicated craft extends to the recreation of the setting, from the NASA offices to the mundanity of white-picket-fence sixties suburbia; the juxtaposition of the two settings complements the narrative of Armstrong pouring himself into his work at the expense of his family.

Even if I don’t love First Man, I won’t say that it isn’t worth watching. Perhaps one of you reading this will be lucky enough to get more out of the film than I did.

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