First Man



18 October 2018| No Comments on First Man     by Sean Chavel



First Man has a stunning, auspicious opening – the kind that leads you to believe this is going to be a very good movie! – as Armstrong is seen breaking the atmosphere with a rocket plane, with a few moments of him losing control, being short on fuel, and possibly getting drifted into outer space, he’s able to steady his aircraft and drop in for one heck of a crash landing. I had hopes that “First Man” was going to make a worthy companion piece to 1983’s “The Right Stuff,” the classic film that depicted Chuck Yeager briefly breaking the atmosphere.

Ryan Gosling looks so little like Neil Armstrong that I have to Google Armstrong again to remember what he looks like. Nonetheless, it is a strong effort by Gosling. He gets the inward demeanor of the man down pat, a man who kept his burning passions pinned within his own chest. He has a noteworthy interview scene where he tells the NASA heads the importance of going to outer space might not be realized until after they’ve done it, and then assess what they’ve learned. But it’s Armstrong who, stone-cold, is the least among anybody to get nauseous during high-pressure challenges. At home his wife Janet (Claire Foy) has the brains to match her husband Neil, but she becomes one of those wives that get shut-out. Neil may have done it all for mankind, like he says, but he keeps all the details to himself.

It must be said that the film is largely a dreary tour through NASA history and blowback by American institutions (Congress for one was rarely happy with NASA). So many objections were raised regarding Americans feeling they were wasting their tax dollars on the space race just to see astronauts in the program die in flight tests, and that generally, there wasn’t much to gain by landing on the moon.

One interview clip has sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut on the telly explaining his concerns that we shouldn’t be spending money going to the moon when New York itself has potholes and needs refined public utilities. I never liked Vonnegut, but there’s nothing wrong with putting a clip of him in the movie. What’s wrong-headed though is that the argument seems to be a one-sided screed that seems to say – inaccurately – everybody was against NASA. As if to ignore the fact that America at large was excited to see us at the time pull ahead in the space race! John F. Kennedy speechmaking shows up in some clips, which will mean something different to different people. Is the film criticizing JFK for using NASA accomplishments as an excuse to boost his own platform about American unity? Would that mean all presidents, at same time or another, like to steal credit for things that don’t belong to them?

Maybe that’s not what the film is saying. But I’m never sure, because often the film is a thematic muddle, as well as being a visual sludge when it is earthbound – dusty, musty, dingy. The movie’s jagged camera angles and jerky editing are distracting. Distracting to the point of being destructive.

How could Damien Chazelle (“La La Land,” “Whiplash”), the preeminent classical craftsman of Hollywood, dispose of that gift and jerky cam his own epic to smithereens? “First Man” is intellectually inadequate, too, which is bound to happen anytime somebody has something interesting to say the jerky cuts distract us to the point we cannot digest any of its said ideas.

But how about that Apollo 11 moon trip that culminated on July 20, 1969? There’s certainly some remarkable dramatic footage on the difficulty to land the lunar module on the moon. It’s audacious that the film suggests a contentious relationship existed between Armstrong and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, whose charm could be undercut by his own prick comments – and yet once they are on the voyage not much flavorful exchanges are made. It also should be said that the film says almost nothing about third astronaut Michael Collins, who was always much more verbal than Armstrong. If Collins had been the one to step onto the moon, we would have had countless elegiac stories. Armstrong rarely said much after 1969.

There are five or six good scenes in “First Man.” It’s too bad that it’s a 141-minute hodgepodge that sucks you into a black hole of dullness way too often in-between its’ good scenes. I recently saw the illuminating documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” (2007), which was full of honest, radiant commentary and stunning footage that’s cut together quite awesomely. In comparison, “First Man” only gave me a little something, and it’s a shock to see how many wrong-headed choices Chazelle made with this. Will the real Chazelle come back?

141 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “The Right Stuff” (1983); “For All Mankind” (1989); “Apollo 13” (1995); “In the Shadow of the Moon” (2007).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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