‘First Man’ Was Interesting, But Like A Documentary


I am afraid that while First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film about the race to land a man on the moon, is really interesting, it is not a gripping experience. It is basically a PBS documentary spliced to a strange soap opera, which means that while it certainly can hold our interest, we probably will not really care much about what happens. I will admit, of course, to a wonderful sense of déjà vu in the last moments when we hear the famous lines, “Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed” and, of course, “first step for man, giant leap for mankind.” But this comes after a very long trip.

The film focuses on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his long-suffering wife Janet (Claire Foy) as they lose their daughter to cancer at age two. Armstrong cries… the last emotion he shows until a few minutes before the end. He volunteers for the Gemini program, flies the difficult Gemini 8 mission and is accepted into Apollo. He and the other astronauts go through the same stressful tests we have seen over and over in so many films. When tragedy kills the team originally planned for a lunar landing, he gets the nod to command and be the first on the moon. And then we watch the famous mission… the best part of the movie.

There are few emotional touches in the film except through Foy. Her eyes seem always wide open in stress and pain. She smokes a lot, a sure sign she is stressed. Aside from feeling sorry for a friend whose husband is killed, her main focus is trying to survive. Even at the end, as the two Armstrongs stare at each other through glass as he is quarantined after the mission, they have nothing to say to each other. This is a major weakness. We know Armstrong will reach the moon — I watched him myself about 50 years ago — but he lives in an emotional wasteland.

Several people complained to me that the filmmakers left out Armstrong’s placing the American flag on the moon. I noted that these days, it’s all about demographics. It is a sign of how far Hollywood has moved away from much of the American public.

The cast was OK. Gosling, normally a wonderfully expressive actor, suppresses just about all emotions. Yes, Armstrong did not show much in the way of emotions, but if you want people to like him in the film, he has to seem human. Foy was over the top most of the time. She did laugh at least once, but quite possibly not much more.

The rest of the cast did not have to do much emoting, which made real applause for them difficult. Corey Stoll does stand out a bit as a really obnoxious Buzz Aldrin; chances are there was some drama between the two men, but we never really see it.

Things kept moving swiftly enough that it never got boring. Watching the politicians planning the speech to be made if things went wrong and the astronauts were stranded on the moon was wrenching. But this is a movie about science and engineers, and it had little time for poetry, surprising since Chazelle’s last film was La La Land.

One bit of news for those who go to the Regal in Royal Palm Beach. It has reached the coveted Round of 16 for worst-run movie theaters in the country, and it is plugging for the championship. Having long lines waiting for tickets because there is only one person selling tickets and people have to spend time choosing which seats they will take in empty theaters is deadening and helps miss film time. And having five people at the candy stand but only one actually working to sell things also ensures long lines and grumbles.

Aside from that, the film was really interesting. With the cost of tickets climbing, however, it is a lot to spend for what is essentially a documentary.