Plot: As the space race rolls on, the United States and the Soviet Union push tech and research beyond known boundaries at a constant clip, in hopes of eclipsing the other in various milestones. After Russia is able to put a man into orbit first, NASA is forced to look to a much more distant goal and begin work to put a man on the moon, a task that seems almost impossible. The tech is being invented and refined as the program moves forward, which means tests are dangerous and in the process, failures happen and lives are lost. The risks are immense, but a small group of astronauts has trained and lined up for consideration, including Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a detached, but ambitious man who ignores the potential consequences of being rocketed into space in a shaky, improvised spacecraft. Even as he watches the tests balance between triumphs and tragedies, Armstrong pushes forward to be on the cusp on the program’s work, while his home life and family are put to the side.
Entertainment Value: First Man is an experience, a ride unlike other space travel movies, as it takes a serious and realistic approach to the topic, which results in some claustrophobic, harrowing sequences. The space travel scenes are tight and intense, you can feel the metal warp and the bolts shake, which makes you have immense respect for the men who strapped in for these flights. Even the smoother missions induce anxiety, but the trips that have unexpected issues ratchet up the tension, making you feel as disoriented and panicked as the astronauts themselves. The visuals are close and tight throughout most of the movie, with a lot of close ups and that contributes to the personal claustrophobic atmosphere, but I can see how some might not appreciate when the close, shaky camera is used in basic conversational sequences. The audio is crucial as well, as the sound design is masterful and combines with the visuals to make the flights seem like a living nightmare. The technical aspects of First Man are excellent, but it loses steam in the personal side of the narrative and the performances are mechanical, so it doesn’t fare as well outside of the spectacle moments. But when the movie focuses on the space race and especially the missions themselves, First Man is a one of a kind experience, which more than compensates for the lesser elements. I wish the entire film was up to that standard, but the movie is still well recommended.
I wasn’t too taken with the performances of First Man, as the movie’s impact wanes when it switches focus to Armstrong’s personal life, as he isn’t likable or even that interesting beyond his involvement in the missions. Ryan Gosling is fine in the role, as he conveys the stoic, driven side of Armstrong well, but this is just one of those characters that leaves little room to shine or be memorable. A laughable scene in the finale tries to redeem Armstrong’s choice of his work over his family, but overall he is unlikable and detached, not the best lead. This becomes especially clear in the scenes with Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, as Armstrong seems like a cardboard cutout compared to Aldrin’s lively personality. Aldrin isn’t likable either, but at least he has some presence and it just highlights how dull and cold Armstrong’s persona is. Gosling’s mechanical performance also clashes with Claire Foy’s melodramatic effort, which makes the intended emotional beats seem awkward and just off. The cast also includes Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hinds, and Christopher Abbott.