The takeoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1968, was the culmination of a decade of planning by NASA, during which millions of dollars were spent and many lives were lost in order to make the United States the first country in taking man to the Moon, and it is precisely the human cost of that milestone that conveys the narration of the new film by Damien Chazelle.
In fact, the most praiseworthy virtue of ‘First Man’ is the lack of patriotic nostalgia he exhibits as he reviews the history of the Apollo program, from its inception at the dawn of the space race to that iconic moment when the lunar module Eagle managed to give that small step for the man that was so great for humanity at the same time.
In any case, yes, the film remains focused on the human being who was responsible for giving it. In particular, he seems to want to put Armstrong’s achievement in contrast to his personal tragedy: the astronaut and his wife, Janet, lost a daughter because of a brain tumor in the early sixties; Soon after, he signed a contract to join NASA. Chazelle is desperate to link these two facts, reminding us of the pain of his protagonist in virtually all the scenes of the film.
Likewise, the director seems to maintain that the loss gave Armstrong the audacity and recklessness necessary to continue with the space mission, while his relationship with Janet and his other two children was being destroyed. Here, the astronaut is portrayed as someone who has learned to nullify their emotions and focus completely on their work.
Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that this story attracted Chazelle, who in ‘Whiplash’ (2013) already spoke of the psychologically destructive journey that a man obsessed with perfection undertakes to succeed, and then in ‘La La Land’ (2016) spoke of a musician who renounces the woman of his life for his love of art.
But if those two previous films squandered energy, ‘First Man’ strips its story of all its excitement and vitality. It is an approach that is undoubtedly deliberate, but with which instead of sinking into Armstrong’s mind, it is about to fall into a deep sleep. Unfortunately, in that sense, Gosling does not help either.
Chazelle has said that he was the only actor he imagined in Armstrong’s skin, and it makes sense: in recent years, Gosling has played a string of introspective characters that required him to be almost catatonic. The approach worked perfectly giving life to the reticent hero of ‘Drive’ (2011) and, above all, the replicant of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017). But here it is even questionable that the Canadian is really acting: his face is nothing more than a blank slate.
It is true that on paper the idea of recreating a journey of such epic connotations from an intimate and personal point of view is very good, but good ideas are not always good movies. Instead of dazzling us with majestic panoramas of outer space, ‘First Man’ remains inside tiny, dark rooms, attached to the faces and bodies of astronauts, as exposed as they are to shaking and trembling and thunderous noise and the approach brings a great realism but also an overwhelming visual and narrative monotony.
During those scenes, likewise, we listen to dialogues full of references to vectors and coordinates and we see Armstrong looking at little screens for minutes that become eternal. What Chazelle intends with them is to make us share the tension and anxiety that astronauts feel. What it accomplishes is, once again, infecting one yawn after another.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic elements involving peril, and brief strong language. 141 minutes.