First Man movie review: Neil Armstrong biopic is a pleasant sensory experience but far from a giant leap

Mihir Fadnavis

Oct 11, 2018 13:05:12 IST


Why do we romanticise space exploration? Perhaps it is the notion of reaching into the seemingly unreachable, humans going against all odds to a place we know very little about, and the danger of never being able to return, fueled by hopes of adventure and discovery. Damien Chazelle attempts to decipher the answer through the eyes of Neil Armstrong in First Man – an exceptionally well crafted film full of tense moments and solid dedication to recreating facts.

 First Man movie review: Neil Armstrong biopic is a pleasant sensory experience but far from a giant leap

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstron in a still from First Man

First Man is of course based on James Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong, but this is not a very conventional Hollywood biopic. Much like the person it chronicles, the film exercises a cold, workmanlike quality that propels forward rather than marinating in the moments. We are given no information about Armstrong as the story chronicles only the pivotal moments between his interview at NASA and the victorious Apollo mission. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong – at the crossroads of dealing with a family tragedy and the doorstep of the space agency’s most ambitious mission. The entire film is just a peek into the window of the highlight of his life, which kind of works as a double edged sword for the film.

Chazelle’s ridiculous grasp on building tension is on full display through a string of severely grueling moments as we see Armstrong put through the training necessary for the Apollo mission. Chazelle and his DOP Linus Sandgren meet the challenge of putting the audience in Armstrong’s shoes, and making them feel the chaos and discomfort of sitting inside a spacecraft. We have seen so many space based films before and yet there is something new to experience on a purely expressive level here. The atmosphere – whether it is within the probes or in the NASA offices is portentous and distressing. There is always an air of uncertainty, further escalated by America’s distrust in NASA during those years. And as is typical of Chazelle’s work, the final 15 minutes contain the most emotionally explosive moments, although here he uses a surprising level of restraint given the momentous events recreated on camera.

The aforementioned double edged sword comes into play with Chazelle’s choice of making a film matching Armstrong’s surging no nonsense personality. As a result, character development is weak as we know nothing about why the man is the way he is. There was a balance that needed to be cracked to let the audiences in on just enough information about him to make us care, but the dramatic arc in the film is based on clichéd broad strokes. There is also very little focus on the supporting characters despite the gigantic cast of well known names (Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Lukas Haas, Shea Wigham and more) – so when some of them are put through danger, it is not clear what happened and why we should feel anything for them. Granted, there is no way one could make a proper story on the Apollo 11 mission other than a mini series, but the utter lack of character moments in the film do make the overall experience a little unsatisfying. Gosling’s Drive and Only God Forgives style of bringing Armstrong to life with limited words and expressions does not help build that bridge. The terrific Claire Foy as Mrs Armstrong is the only one who gets a character moment in edgeways and she predictably chews scenery.

One could award the same criticisms to Dunkirk, and much like that film, First Man is more about sensory manipulation. It is a dazzling mix of sight and sound that needs to be experienced in IMAX screens. It may not be the giant leap that Chazelle’s first film was, but it is a small step into showcasing his sheer range as one of the most talented filmmakers out there.  

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Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 13:05:12 IST