It is doubtless that man setting foot on the moon is one of the greatest achievements of mankind’s history. So often, the history of man is one of regret: war, famine, bloodshed, conquests, plagues. But landing on the moon galvanized every person on the planet in 1969. Here was man doing something amazing for the benefit of our species. Yes, part of the impetus was for the United States to beat the Soviets to the punch. But even the most cynical of selves could still feel something majestic in the act of a person on the moon.
That’s what most people would expect from a movie that tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to take that monumental step: a story of bravery, ingenuity and endeavor. Instead, “First Man” is a morbid, dreary, sometimes boring tale of death and sacrifice with Ryan Gosling doing his best Ambien impression.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is mourning the death of his young daughter as he serves as a pilot for NASA. The mounting pressure on the agency to beat the Soviets to the moon forces them to keep pushing the boundary of science and innovation. Pilot after pilot dies including Armstrong’s good friend, Ed White (Jason Clarke), as the program moves forward, the pressures on Armstrong exacerbated by his diminishing relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and his family. After Gemini 8 nearly fails under Armstrong’s command, he is given command of Apollo 11. Can he push through and get to the moon?
Written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle, the film fails mainly because of the characterization of Neil Armstrong. Yes, we feel for him losing his daughter, but for the entirety of the film, he mopes around, rarely happy, disconnected from the action. He mistreats his wife and his family and his journey to the moon seems more like an exercise in testing death than achieving any sort of personal or philosophical ideal.
Granted, it’s nice in a way to see a different approach to a space film other than the chest-beating, patriotic slant of “Apollo 13” or the space-is-otherworldly thrills of “Interstellar” and “Gravity.” But a movie about a moment such as this should feel triumphant, not morose.
His daughter’s death could have served as motivation for Armstrong. Perhaps she always wondered what the moon felt like and talked with her dad about it before she died. Some sort of motivation for Armstrong would have done wonders. But Neil is given no motivation. Why he wants to go to the moon and fly his missions is a mystery to us. For the thrill? For achievement? For family? To beat the Soviets? We get nothing and that leaves us with an empty feeling.
In contrast, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is presented as a witty, sarcastic SOB. You’d rather be with him because he at least seems interesting or have him played up against Armstrong’s dour persona. Perhaps they learn from each other on the journey. Just give us something.
It’s a shame because with the deluge of space movies lately, you’d think one about Neil Armstrong would fit right into cannon. The editing and presentation of space travel are tense and realistic, the sense of danger real. But behind all the facade and technical prowess beats an empty heart.