Spoiler alert: Contrary to Stanley Kubrick-obsessed conspiracy theorists, a lunar module (call-sign “Eagle”) carrying two Earth-born astronauts landed on the moon fifty years ago next July. The two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, took “one small step for [a] man and one giant leap for mankind.” They became instant heroes and icons in the process. They were both alone and not alone. The United States, then the wealthiest country in the world, devoted roughly 5% of the federal budget to the Cold War-era space program. We landed on the moon because we could, because we wanted to be first, but mostly to beat the Soviets (and, of course, communism), and Armstrong, the epitome of America’s founding myth (rugged individualism, pioneer spirit, self-made men and woman) would seem like a perfect or near perfect subject for a big-budget, Hollywood biopic. Or at least, that’s what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and writer Josh Singer thought when they decided to work together and bring Neil Armstrong to life in First Man. They were, at best, half-right.
The Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) we meet in the opening scene embodies the self-confidence, singular resolve, and fearlessness of America and Americans at their best: Piloting a rocket-powered X-15, Armstrong briefly glimpses outer space (stratosphere) from the cramped, claustrophobic cabin of his experimental jet. In just those few minutes, Chazelle and Singer not just set the stage, but set the tone, look, and feel of First Man. Chazelle sticks closely to Armstrong’s limited point-of-view, rarely, if ever breaking for the wide, magisterial shots of the night sky or the ground below. We see what Armstrong sees. We hear what Armstrong hears (straining, shrieking metal). We feel what he feels (thanks to First Man’s masterful sound design), but what we don’t get to experience in that first scene, the inside of Armstrong’s head, is also what we don’t experience over the course of First Man’s two hour, 20-minute running time. Like the pop-culture, Western heroes of film and TV of the time, Armstrong was a man of few words. He preferred to let his actions, his dedication, and his hard-won skills to define who and what he was.
Ultimately, that means that for all of Chazelle’s close camerawork, we never get any closer to Armstrong the man. He’s a dreamer obviously, obsessed with joining the space program and becoming an astronaut, but he never gives voice to why he wants to join or what his ultimate ambitions (i.e., the moon) might lie. He lets others do the talking, notably his future second-in-command and lunar buddy, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), a no-filters, speak-his-mind bulldozer in a human body. He’s not above – or below – speaking ill of a dead man at the dead man’s wake (blaming the dead man for his own death), but it’s Armstrong’s neighbor and fellow astronaut, Ed White (Jason Clarke), who turns into the closest thing Armstrong has to a best friend in or out of NASA. White’s the extrovert to Armstrong’s introvert, open and friendly where Armstrong is closed and reserved. Chazelle and Singer locate Armstrong’s self-imposed emotional isolation in (spoiler alert) the death of Armstrong’s young daughter to cancer (“We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t cure…”). It’s not exactly a mistake, but it’s an easy – too easy, by any definition – to give the audience an emotional throughline or anchor in a film that’s less a character study than a space-age procedural.
That emotional throughline finds resolution not on Earth with Armstrong’s long-suffering wife, Janet (Claire Foy, making the most out of a one-dimensional role) or his two, preteen sons (his pre-launch good-byes to his sons are the opposite of emotional), but when, after a decade of seemingly ceaseless, obsessive effort and some measure of luck, Armstrong finally finds himself on the moon, a memory-flashback playing through his head as he looks up at the Earth-filled sky, the first man to accomplish what seemed impossible fifty or sixty years earlier. For all of the meticulous craftsmanship and thought that went into that scene (see it in IMAX if you can), it still feels like Chazelle and Singer took the easiest way out to please audiences likely eager for an emotional connection of any kind with a superhumanly reserved man of few words and even fewer facial expressions.
Alone, that made Gosling an ideal choice to bring Armstrong back to life. Few actors can underplay like Gosling can. He seems to prefer roles where everything but dialogue drives a performance (e.g., Blade Runner: 2049, Drive). Gosling has mastered the fine art of doing nothing or rather looking like he’s doing nothing, while minute changes in facial expressions and body language communicate a character’s conflicted inner life. Chazelle and Singer, however, either didn’t trust Gosling to convey Armstrong’s inner life in key moments or didn’t think moviegoers would exert the energy and concentration necessary to make the same conclusions on their on. Whatever the reasons, it lessens, if not outright cheapens, what’s otherwise a remarkable technical accomplishment and master class in visual storytelling. We can’t have everything, but at least we’ll get to see Gosling-as-Armstrong take the first steps on (non-real) moon, bringing us, however briefly, as close to a historical moment as humanly possible without being there ourselves.