L&D headed into the opening night of First Man expecting a high-energy film and a high-energy crowd: we got neither. Not only was the crowd in the single digits (even including the fabulous Anderson Brothers, who attended the show with us), the movie itself was a pretty mellow affair, with occasional bursts of excitement. Kind of like the space travel itself, I suppose, which must be long stretches of nothing punctuated by hyper-intense, high-stakes moments.
The movie, of course, focuses on astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his trajectory from young civilian pilot to the fore of the NASA program. Overall, the action scenes — takeoffs, landings, dockings, bouncings off the atmosphere, etc… — were expositionally and technically impressive. It turns out that pilots are often in very jittery situations. First Man is worth seeing just on the back of that alone, and I might go back and see it again.
It’s the rest of the movie that is a little less impressive, particularly some of the choices about plot emphasis. Gosling plays Armstrong as a cerebral, measured character, rewarded and promoted for his intelligence, his cool under pressure, his perseverance, and his luck of not being one of the several astronauts who was killed in action. He’s a compelling character. He is also willing to hold his tongue when he could potentially interject his opinion, and to call out others to keep their mouths’ shut, as well. I liked this Armstrong.
But instead of shining a light on the trajectory of Armstrong’s career within the technical challenges and politics of NASA, the film instead puts its focus on his familial relationships, particularly with his wife (Claire Foy) and their young daughter. Foy does a great job in her portrayal, a really great job, particularly with respect to her tenuous position as a woman whose husband might not come home. And it isn’t entirely clear how she feels about her husband’s otherworldly accomplishments and celebrity status. Indeed, I heard someone ask “Is she still mad at him?” as we adjourned from the theater. But besides some great acting on both sides, this is decidedly not the most interesting aspect of the First Man story.
We also get a dose of gratuitous social commentary, with Kurt Vonnegut inexplicably getting tossed under the bus and an accurate but seemingly forced commentary on the status of 1960s US race relations as a temporary intermission of sorts before we get back to the main event. I guess I am in the camp that this was probably unnecessary and didn’t work for me.
I would have probably voted for a more straight-up biopic, focusing on NASA machinations, NASA politics, and astronaut dish. What was the deal between Aldrin and Armstrong anyway? There was a hint that Aldrin was somewhat bumptious and rubbed Armstrong the wrong way. What did these two do once they were down on the lunar surface — Aldrin looked like he was whooping it up there. What did they talk about when they got back in? Where and how did they poop and how did they feel about that? (I actually have a colleague who spent a great deal of time in space, and one of the few things I remember him sharing about space travel is that the men and women are “pretty ripe” when they get back home.) And who was the third guy in the Apollo craft and what was he doing? How did he feel about being left in space while his fellow men traipsed about the green cheese? And what about Armstrong coming up with the “One small step for a man” line and his subsequent bungling of it? He must have sweated that one out. I liked the other scene where the NASA brass was writing press releases, and I think Armstrong wrestling with what to say when he crawled out would have worked a lot better than what we got. Instead, we get a decidedly narrow interpretation of Armstrong’s experience, one that was foreshadowed earlier, and, frankly, isn’t believable as the dominant aspect of his lunar experience. Upon seeing this, the whole flag omission thing is definitely a non-issue for me — they didn’t show us much at all about the moontime, one of the more profound moments in human history, for sure. Finally, I would have liked to see more about the tension of getting off the moon and re-docking with the mothership connection.
I won’t bother myself to figure out why the narrative arc went the way that it did, except to say that this isn’t a great film as a result. And, judging by the tepid attendance and audience reaction, it won’t be a blockbuster, either. Even so, I think L&D would both endorse this on the big screen with the big speakers, so you can experience the Dolby SuperJitterCam from the comfort of your Marcus barcalounger.
And if you don’t, well, you’ll never know quite how L&D feel about that decision.