First Man (2018)

DAMIEN CHAZELLE

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBB.5.  USA/Japan, 2018.  Universal Pictures, DreamWorks, Perfect World Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment, Georgia Film, Music & Digital Entertainment Office, Dentsu, Fuji Television Network.  Screenplay by Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen.  Cinematography by Linus Sandgren.  Produced by Marty Bowen, Damien Chazelle, Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner.  Music by Justin Hurwitz.  Production Design by Nathan Crowley.  Costume Design by Mary Zophres.  Film Editing by Tom Cross.  Toronto International Film Festival 2018.  Golden Globe Awards 2018.

Ryan Gosling in First Man.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) suffers a tragic personal loss while working as a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, continuing to show up at the office despite his co-workers insisting he take time off to be with his family. Rather than endure their sympathy, Armstrong fills out an application for NASA’s burgeoning Gemini space program and, despite being among the few civilian applicants among military personnel applying to be the first man on the moon, he gets chosen for the mission.  After his first trip suffers a malfunction, followed by the horrifying deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts, Armstrong eventually makes it to our nearest celestial neighbour, uttering the line heard on televisions around the world that would echo through the decades to come (phallocentric as the word “mankind” may be) and forever associate his name with model citizenship and heroism. What Damien Chazelle’s elegant film presents, however, is a portrait of a man so determined to avoid processing his grief that that he actually travels into outer space so he won’t have to talk to his wife about his feelings; not a typical approach to a biopic of so famous a name and certainly a disappointment to an audience member looking for a flag-waving tribute to military might and masculine aggression, but this approach also contributes to what is often a haunting film, beautifully shot even when its emotional content falters. Having already enjoyed The Right Stuff‘s awkward first steps through the space program and the brilliant combination of technical wizardry with interpersonal drama that Apollo 13 did so well, Chazelle wisely avoids both and focuses on the individual as he holds his stoic expression through training, failures, deaths, press conferences and eventually the noise of liftoff before finding himself on a desolate world where, surrounded by nothing but grainy sand, he finally realizes that he needs to crack through his protective shell. In the thankless role of the ever-patient wife who must hold the human side of his life together, Claire Foy cuts through all the Honey Come To Bed cliches and gives a masterful performance, challenging Armstrong’s inability to communicate with her own incisively smart objections after having navigated through her own doubts.

Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in First Man.

Intelligently as it processes this story, however, and as lush as the dazzling cinematography and musical score are, the film doesn’t land directly on its target, intellectually satisfying but never emotionally captivating thanks to the miscasting of Gosling in the lead. Strong and silent he may be, and certainly the stuff that leading men are made of, but Gosling is also a relaxed and uncomplicated presence who can never convince you that he is holding anything in:  this is a character who is supposed to be bursting at the seams with repressed rage and sorrow but is played by someone who always seems like he just came from a really great day at the spa. The flaw in this choice of a star harms the movie’s potential to score a home run, and not from a lack of talent on the actor’s part, but it’s still a worthy drama that further proves Chazelle’s expertise as a filmmaker.

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