Review of Damien Chazelle’s “First Man”: A grounded film about outer space. Unfortunately.

Photograph: Daniel McFadden

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” is one of the most exciting movies of the year – on paper. Not only is it Chazelle’s first film following his Oscar for directing “La La Land”, but it caters to a deep-rooted fascination most of us share – the mystery and excitement of space exploration. Movies about space and space travel have always been a sure winner, and to finally see the story of the man who made “one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind”, Neil Armstrong, is bound to be a home run – on paper. It seems, however, no one considered the fact that practically the only thing interesting about Armstrong is his footprint on the moon – which “First Man” unfortunately falls victim to. 

“First Man” tells the story of astronaut pioneer Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling. The story begins in 1961 and follows Armstrong from engineer and test pilot in the Mojave Desert to becoming a part of the Apollo-mission at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Armstrong’s journey to the moon is burdened by the deaths of several of his colleagues and the loss of his young daughter to cancer. His wife Janet Shearon, beautifully portrayed by Claire Foy, holds his hand through the possess but deals with the weight of both the physical and emotional distance that is formed between her and her husband.

The film follows both Neil the husband and Neil the astronaut. The intensity of the opening scene with Neil the astronaut sets the bar so high that Neil the husband comes across as dull. Neil was a one-dimensional guy and despite Gosling’s unquestionable talent, he comes across as just that. In the seemingly infinite amount scenes where he Neil is having discussions with his wife – whether about the loss of their daughter or the fact that he might never come back to earth – it is Foy’s intensity that fills the scene. Neil seems neither connected to his wife nor truly concerned about the issues. The story Chazelle tells us, about a man who is a regular husband with regular issues despite being a part of history, is far better told through the other astronauts, especially Jason Clarke as Ed White.

Despite having a one-dimensional protagonist, Chazelle demands and receives, the audience’s full attention with Neil the astronaut. Previous portrayals of Apollo-missions depicts space travel as something sleek, modern and minimalistic. But Chazelle brings us into the grimy, intense and claustrophobic reality of early space travel with some of the very best space and NASA scenes ever made. Instead of grandiose aerial views of rockets and NASA launch pads, Chazelle stuffs the audience inside the capsule together with the astronauts, leaving the glossy fantasies of space travel outside. Together with teeth-shattering sound design, and Chazelles partner-in-crime, Justin Horowitz’s, sublime score, it is these scenes that make up for the domestic melodrama.

The capable screenplay is by Josh Singer, making it the first film Chazelle has made that he has not written himself. You can see that in its lack of the beautifully executed straightforwardness of “Whiplash” and “La La Land”. “First Man” is all over the place – and would have benefitted from a clearer trajectory. If you want to watch a great movie about space exploration, Chazelle’s epic includes just enough astonishing space and spacecraft scenes to fit the bill. But if you want to watch a great movie about an explorer, “First Man” falls far down on the list.

BFI IMAX: https://www.odeon.co.uk/films/first_man/17792/#showtimes (Student ticket £18.25)

Cineworld Leicester Square: https://www.cineworld.co.uk/cinemas/london-leicester-square (Student ticket £11.95)

Peckhamplex: http://www.peckhamplex.london/film/first-man (Ticket £4.99)