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Sunday, October 14, 2018

First Man

First Man is not the rousing and inspirational Neil Armstrong biopic you might expect from Hollywood.  It's very intimate, solemn, and quiet.  It paints Armstrong (played in the film by Ryan Gosling) as a man haunted by the pain of losing his infant daughter to cancer, and in need of a fresh start.  He has a loving wife and family, and while he loves them, we get the sense that he may sometimes have a hard time reaching them.

Some audiences and critics may find this approach somewhat cold and distant.  Armstrong is not a warm presence in the film.  He is stoic, quiet, and usually keeps a lot of emotions to himself.  But I got the impression that director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post) are trying to unravel the folklore and legacy that has been built up over the decades, and make him into a man who is unsure sometimes, and can be distant or nervous.  The way Gosling plays him, without a hint of sentiment, can also be fascinating, as it allows us to read so much into his silent and at times almost stony performance.  This is not a case of a strong actor going through the motions.  This performance is intentional.  His Neil Armstrong is not a blank slate, as some I have heard accuse him of being.  He is a man who has trouble expressing his emotions, and buries himself in work in order to combat the pain in his life. 

That being said, there is something to be said about the criticisms of how Armstrong has been handled here.  When he is with his wife (Claire Foy) and two young sons, Gosling's performance can sometimes work against him, and make it seem as if he is a bit too detached from his family than maybe was intended.  One problem stems from a scene where his wife has to actually tell him to sit down and talk to his boys about the chance that he may not come home from his mission to the moon.  You would think that this would be something Armstrong would know to do on his own, and not just walk out the door without really saying anything, which is what he almost seems to want to do until his wife all but forces him to talk to his kids.  Scenes like this strike the wrong tone, but fortunately, they do not come up very often, and on the whole, the performance and the depiction of Armstrong as a quiet figure worked for me on a dramatic level.

If the movie's depiction of the man himself is somewhat emotionally distant, this is combated by the absolutely thrilling depiction of flight and space travel that is featured throughout the film.  If you have ever wondered how it feels to be in the cockpit as a space shuttle hurtles up into the atmosphere, then First Man will probably give you the closest thing to the actual experience.  The opening scene alone, where Armstrong is testing an X-15 aircraft, is astonishingly intense on its own, but as the film ups the stakes, sending its subject up into the stars, there is a sense of realism and authenticity the likes of which we probably haven't seen since Apollo 13 way back in 1995.  I imagine these sequences are even more impressive in IMAX, where it is playing on select screens.  If you have the chance, I have a hunch that this is the way to view the sequences depicting flight and space travel.

As I'm sure you're aware, the movie has drawn some controversy from certain viewers (many of whom have yet to see the film) about the fact that it does not depict Armstrong placing an American flag on the moon.  This is supposed to make the film unpatriotic somehow, never mind the fact that we see a whole crowd of people waving American flags as they watch the moon landing in a public arena, as well as a shot of one of Armstrong's boys raising an American flag outside of his home.  I believe this decision is also tied into the sort of film that Chazelle has chosen to make.  Rather then focus on the sentimental patriotism, the film chooses to make the moon landing a personal event for Armstrong, as he uses it to honor the memory of his daughter.  It's a beautiful and wordless moment, and in this particular movie, it works.

Rather than complain about what you want First Man to be, you just have to look at the film for what it is.  It is a quiet, sometimes sad and reflective look at a man who is depicted as a bit of an enigma, but still comes across as brave and knowing enough to demand respect.  It is beautifully shot and grand in scope at times, but it really is a deeply personal journey, and I enjoyed it on that level.

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