FIRST MAN Imax movie poster | ©2018 Universal Pictures

FIRST MAN Imax movie poster | ©2018 Universal Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll
Writer: Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen
Director: Damien Chazelle
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: October 12, 2018

FIRST MAN refers not to early homo sapiens as an individual or group, but rather to astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. It is hoped that this isn’t a big spoiler, but the title gives it away, and it happened (to enormous, long-lasting publicity) forty years ago.

Neil Armstrong is an impressive man, and what he and the NASA Apollo mission achieved is extraordinary. Director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, in adapting the nonfiction book by James R. Hansen, are fully cognizant of the awesome nature of this venture. They want to share that sense of awe with us, and to a large extent, they are successful, particularly when FIRST MAN is shown in IMAX. Images of the lunar landscape, and Earth from thousands of miles away, are breathtaking.

Where the filmmakers get into trouble is trying to make FIRST MAN a character study. This seems like a natural instinct. Neil Armstrong, played here by Ryan Gosling, did something unique and practically impossible. It’s perfectly valid to wonder what makes him tick.

FIRST MAN wants to depict Armstrong as someone who has deep feelings that he has no ability, and apparently little desire, to express. Again, nothing wrong with that. Plenty of movies have been made about stoic people with far less world-changing ambitions. But, despite Gosling’s customary soulfulness, this Neil Armstrong is so closed off that it’s hard to care much what happens to him, or whether making it to the moon will shake anything loose within him.  The filmmakers want us to understand that the tragedy that begins FIRST MAN sets the stage for all that follows, but it doesn’t. We get why Armstrong is devastated, but not how this magnifies or minimizes or does much of anything to his desire to make it to the moon. We don’t get much of a read as to whether he’s competitive or would be fine with being the second man on the moon, or just part of the mission.

FIRST MAN movie poster | ©2018 Universal Pictures

FIRST MAN movie poster | ©2018 Universal Pictures

One thing that is clear is that Armstrong would prefer not to have to talk about anything deep with his wife Jan (Claire Foy) or their two young sons; at several points, it seems as though he’d accept any sort of work that would allow him to avoid conversation. This is telling, but it’s not especially intriguing, nor does it invite our empathy. As Jan has experienced the same tragedy as her husband, doesn’t have the distraction of a NASA job, and still manages to act like a human being, this makes Armstrong’s reticence even less compelling. Foy makes the most of her character (and does a first-rate American accent). FIRST MAN also shows signs of wanting to be a well-rounded domestic drama, but as good as Foy is, with the exception of one powerful scene, the movie doesn’t find much new to say about being an astronaut’s wife.

We actually get a better sense of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke). White is thoughtful and compassionate, while Aldrin, as depicted here, is openly ambitious and manages to say the most insensitive thing possible on all occasions. The actors are fine, and the writing is such that we’d like to see more of both of them.

FIRST MAN is good at providing the historical context for the moon landing. We get budget battles and public debate, including a rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon,” about how the government can’t find money to help poor citizens, especially African-Americans, but can finance the space program.

In the end, we can respect FIRST MAN for its imagery and information. It’s just hard to warm to it, or the man in its title. We come away feeling our own desire to walk on the moon more strongly than we feel Neil Armstrong’s yearning to do so.

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