After successfully saving jazz a couple of years ago, director Damien Chazelle teams up with leading actor Ryan Gosling once again for space drama First Man. Based on James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, the plot follows the lives of NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) during the 1960s Space Race. When Neil is selected to command the now legendary Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, he seizes the opportunity to make history.
We’re thrust straight into danger in the opening scene as Armstrong’s rocket plane bounces off the atmosphere during a test flight. Tight yet incredibly shaky camera work sets the precedent for what is to come in the discombobulating action sequences later in the piece. Justin Hurwitz, a frequent collaborator of Chazelle’s, composes an entrancing score that works in harmony with the claustrophobic landscape. However, for all its technical craftmanship, the emotional engineering is badly manufactured. Within the family dynamic, the narrative explores heavy themes of grief and loss but the lack of substance in Josh Singer’s screenplay undermines the weightiness of the subject matter.
In keeping with the minimalistic approach adopted by the filmmaker, Gosling and Foy deliver subdued, melancholic performances. With little dialogue and a lot of middle-distance staring, the ‘less is more’ intent is blatantly obvious, but I struggled to connect with the sentiment. A host of strong actors including Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham and Jason Clarke make up the supporting cast, but nobody is given enough depth or screen time to leave a lasting impression.
First Man is a solid but unremarkable retelling of what was undoubtedly a remarkable feat. Damien Chazelle directs with his usual passionate gusto and artistic flair, but the emotional elements of the story never really take off. The moon landing scene itself is quite the cinematic achievement but, like for Armstrong and his crew, it’s an arduous experience to get there.
See the trailer: