First Man is a film of two stories. On the surface it’s about Neil Armstrong and NASA’s journey to the moon. What it’s really about though is Neil Armstrong’s handling of his daughter’s death and how he deals with and moves on from that trauma.
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong. Gosling’s performance is a good, but familiar one. The character is a subdued, quiet individual who bottles up his thoughts and emotions, despite the consequences that can have on a persons psychology. Gosling does a great job of showing how the trauma’s affect him. There are scenes in the film where his silence says everything we need to know. He rarely ever shouts or gets angry. Instead, he charges off, goes into silent solitude and shuts himself off from the world. This means that when his emotions do come to surface, the performance is powerful and noteworthy.
Meanwhile, Claire Foy plays the wife of Neil Armstrong. Unlike Gosling, Claire’s performance is far more emotive. She has to be happy and cheerful around the children but concerned and frustrated around Neil. Sadly, the character is somewhat limited. Claire rarely leaves the confines of the house throughout the film. Her character is often reduced to being a stereotypical stay at home mother. While this may be historically accurate, it doesn’t always paint the character in the best way and it doesn’t allow Claire too many chances to shine and actually do something.
All the other characters in the film don’t get the same time, development and treatment as the leads. It’s understandable, because they are side characters, but they lack development and often rely on the star power and familiarity of the actors to add some depth to the roles. That being said, the acting is perfectly fine, especially from Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler.
Where the film truly shines is in its production and cinematography. The use of lighting and film grain gives the film an archival, documentary look. It helps increase the validity of the events depicted by making it look and feel like real, documentary footage. To top it off, the film is also very good looking. The sets, props and costumes are great and I suspect there was a very limited use of CGI. Even the space sequences look like they avoided the use of CGI. It looks like real models and structures were used. This is evident from the way in which cameras were often fixed to the side of the shuttles. It all helps with the immersion and it adds to the realism of the film.
This won’t however be a film for everyone. It’s a little on the long side and it can sometimes be a bit slow. Because the film is based upon a book, which in turn is based on very well known real events, the film lacks much in the way of surprise or genuine tension. We all know how the story pans out, we all know what happens and how it happens. This means that the film’s central, journey to the moon storyline falls flat at times. Where the story does standout is in its study of Neil Armstrong and his personal life. There are elements of this storyline that I wasn’t aware of. The film does a good job of putting so much focus and emphasis on this story while also balancing it with the space race one.
First Man is an enjoyable, engaging film about Neil Armstrong, his personal life and his journey to the moon. Overfamiliarity with the real events does hamper the film’s central storyline to a degree, but the film does a good job of making it exciting nonetheless. The most engaging parts of the story are the more subdued, family drama elements which allows Gosling to show his acting chops. In terms of production, the film is a standout as it features great cinematography, giving it a documentary look and feel. I do recommend the film to those interested, but be warned that it probably won’t be for everyone.