This was a movie we all knew the ending, too. We knew that Neil Armstrong was the first man to land and walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. The only reason we would be watching this movie is to see its backstory. We would like to witness the evolving drama and the exciting processes before reaching that historic ending. We would like to know more about the first man on the moon, how Armstrong was as a man before he took that giant leap for mankind and became an icon.
We follow Armstrong's career from a NASA test pilot in 1961 to a full-fledged astronaut in Project Gemini in 1965. We hear about the Space Race between the USSR and the US, how the US lagged behind every step of the way. We watch with horror at disastrous US space missions along the way that claimed lives of hapless astronauts. We witness the charmed piloting skills of Armstrong in at least three accidents when he cheated death, en route to him being chosen to be the captain of the Apollo 11 mission.
Ryan Gosling looked nothing like Armstrong, and for me that was distracting. As far as his personality was concerned, Armstrong was portrayed to be all business. He was stoic and taciturn. He was cool to a fault, aloof, unemotional. Maybe these are the very traits that made him a successful astronaut, but the way these qualities were shown on the big screen, his type of persona came across as dull and unengaging. There was a scene when Armstrong was trying to say goodbye to his young son, but I did not feel any warmth.
Claire Foy played Armstrong's wife, Janet. She was not exactly portrayed as the ideal ever-supportive wife. Like many housewives, she was also beset with insecure feelings that she was not the first priority in her husband's life, which most likely was true in her case.
The charismatic Corey Stoll was Buzz Aldrin, and Lukas Haas was Michael Collins, Armstrong's crew on Apollo 11. Jason Clarke was Ed White (the first American to walk in space) and Patrick Fugit played Elliot See, astronauts with tragic fates. Kyle Chandler was Deke Slayton, NASA's official in charge of astronaut training and other affairs.
As far as the scenes of space travel are concerned, of course they looked spectacular on the big screen -- executed with the latest cinematic technology. The moon landing scenes are predictably the main highlights, but the rest, I don't really notice anything particularly innovative about them. The camera shook a lot during the moments that the rockets were in danger, which may cause vertigo for some sensitive viewers.
Unlike other biopics about the American space program, "First Man" did not have a politically-charged, flag-waving patriotic moment at the end. Much had been already said about Damien Chazelle's controversy-baiting omission of that key scene of Armstrong actually planting the US flag on the moon.
This film is more about Armstrong the man than the Apollo 11 the mission, but the mission is really the more interesting cinematic subject matter than the man we meet. 6/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."