The Ryan Gosling movie First Man, about the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, has been released on home video. I reviewed it on Patreon for my $1/month and up supporters back in October, and now present here on the ol’ blog as we approach the 50th anniversary of the events described.
It’s interesting, as an unrepentant space nerd, to watch the progression of movies about the space program. First you’ve got The Right Stuff in the 1980s, a hagiography of the early astronauts that sacrificed the most in terms of real-world facts for dramatic impact, and also casting the first people to go into space as total rock stars.
Then in the 1990s, we had Apollo 13, which still showcased the astronauts, but expanded the focus to the support crew on the ground. The real heroes of the film weren’t the three guys stuck in the capsule, it was the engineers on the ground who figured out how to get them home.
In the 2010s, we had Hidden Figures, showcasing another set of unsung heroes, the “computers,” the African-American women who did most of the math for the space program.
Most recently, Ryan Gosling stars in First Man, which focuses on Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on a planetary body other than Earth, as he commanded the Apollo 11 mission that was humanity’s first successful attempt to put humans on the moon.
We’ve come full circle from The Right Stuff, as Armstrong as portrayed by Gosling isn’t blandified or whitewashed or made into something more noble. Instead, Armstrong is a humorless, unhappy egghead who doesn’t deal all that well with people, and who’s trying to figure out how to live without his daughter, who died at age two in 1961.
There’s nothing wrong with giving a more nuanced and truthfully unfavorable portrayal of astronauts. The people we see in this film are human—they have foibles and flaws and eccentricities. The problem is that the script is so busy showing how normal they are that it forgets to show their good sides.
Technically, the film is an impressive achievement, as they re-create the realities of space travel phenomenally well. Unfortunately, while the technical work is great, the actual pacing is horrendous. Every single sequence of flying, whether through the air or through space, goes on at least 50% longer than it needs to, and often more like 75%. The opening of Armstrong testing an X-15 that climbs above the atmosphere and bounces off it before Armstrong can figure out how to land sets the languid, endless tone for every like sequence in the film: shaky-cam closeups of Armstrong, of his instruments, of the view out of the cockpit, over and over and over again, with an irritating amount of silence. This happens a lot—on occasions where the radio chatter should be pretty much incessant, instead, it’s completely quiet. Which wouldn’t be so bad if anything was happening, but Damien Chazelle seems to think that letting the camera bounce around with the vessel and endless shots of the sky, the instrumentation, and the pilot(s) will actually build suspense all by itself. But most of the time, that pilot is Armstrong, who is being played as a total stiff. There’s no urgency because he has no urgency, no emotion, no anything. He’s just sleepwalking through life.
At the end of the film, when his wife Janet—Claire Foy in a role that is thankless even by the low standards of wives in movies like this—goes to visit him in quarantine after Apollo 11 has returned to Earth. They spend about seven years staring at each other before Armstrong makes a half-hearted gesture of affection. Both of them look agonized and pained and miserable.
If you’d showed me this scene out of context, I would have assumed that they just found out that their two-year-old daughter died, not that he was just the first fucking person to walk on the moon, from which he actually came back alive and holy shit that’s amazing what’s fucking wrong with you people?????
Seriously, the one thing that all the other films I mentioned above had in common was a sense of wonder and adventure. Even though there was full awareness that these were people doing a job, there’s a sense of mundane inevitability and of going through the motions that is completely at odds with what any story about the space program should ever be like. It’s not like the dangers are softpedaled—hell, the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee on Apollo 1 is dramatized in the movie. The rare occasions when the movie shows people celebrating someone’s accomplishment, it feels out of place and awkward.
But even the negative emotions are few and far between. Foy’s best moment in the film is when she practically has to put Armstrong into a headlock to get him to tell his two sons that he’s going to the moon and he might not come back. It shows just what an emotional coward Armstrong is after losing his daughter, and Foy’s frustration is palpable as Janet. The movie needed more of that—if it couldn’t give us people happy to be going into space, it could at least have emotionally fucked-up people going into space.
Overall, the pacing is a disaster. The flying sequences do go on forever, but everything else takes too long, as well. This is about 75 minutes of movie jam-packed into an endless 2.5-hour package.
The movie is also relentlessly dark in terms of visuals. Even when the sun’s out, Chazelle emphasizes the shadows—and more often, it’s night. It’s a dank movie, and I honestly can’t figure out what message the movie is trying to convey. The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, these were movies about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. First Man is about a miserable person surrounded by other miserable people doing something dangerous for no obvious reason.
There’s a good movie to be made about the life of Neil Armstrong. I hope someone makes it some day.