The biopic, as a film genre, is a notoriously difficult thing to get right. The problem with much of history, and indeed a great deal of personal history, is that it’s not particularly cinematic because it’s often so internalized. It’s the problem a lot of faith-based films have. How can you quantify a spiritual experience and make that cinematic? Even more troublesome is the apparent need of a biopic to be as expansive as possible, often opting for a “cradle to grave” approach that gives the audience a wealth of information without ever justifying just what about all of that information was ever important or necessary in the first place.
But then, there are occasionally figures and events that are so monumental that they deserve films that look deep into their lives and moments. First Man is sometimes that type of biopic, as it observes Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) for nearly a decade before the Apollo 11 launch, which was a major event in United States history, nay, the history of the world to some extent. The problem is that Neil Armstrong himself was notoriously very calm, calculated, quiet, and… internal. So First Man doesn’t want for cinematic aspirations, as all of the space travel and preparations are truly thrilling, but when it comes to its titular character, the film’s most powerful moments feel more like conjecture than genuine observation.
That’s not to say that Neil Armstrong isn’t a unique individual. Rather the opposite. Somebody who lives their life so meticulously beholden to procedures while keeping very private about personal things is a wondrous enigma, and it’s no surprise that it was someone like Armstrong who ended up being the first man to walk on the moon. To Armstrong, it didn’t mean a chance for celebrity and it never changed him. It was just another mission, important because of what it took to get there. This is the same man who ran into a burning building to save his own family and never once made a big deal about his heroic actions. And yet the film never does the most important thing: give us a reason we should root for Armstrong to get to the moon. Perhaps it’s because we know the inevitable. History happens and a man walks on the moon. But that’s where the film could’ve taken an opportunity to explore Armstrong on a deeper personal level. At the very least, provide something more substantial as to what created the drive. Gosling is an incredibly talented actor, one of the best working today, because he’s so good at making what’s unsaid feel like its been put out there just by his facial reactions or body language. So it’s not surprising that his performance is strong, but even he can’t quite overcome just how thin Armstrong’s arc is.
This is all the more important because the film chooses to leverage its overlong runtime by splitting the focus between the space exploration elements and domestic drama. The former is much more effective as a whole, with some truly thrilling sequences that make great use of sound design and claustrophobic, almost chaotic camerawork. But the latter, all of the family stuff, is a bit too understated to really resonate, and as a result, it never quite feels like we get to see many sides of Neil Armstrong. To try and remedy some of this, the story centers Armstrong’s personal journey around the sudden and tragic death of his little daughter Karen Armstrong. One of the film’s most shocking juxtapositions comes when idyllic family life is cut into by the sounds of a coffin being lowered into the ground — Karen’s coffin. It’s an incredibly effective transition, and it allows us one of the few moments where Armstrong is seemingly vulnerable throughout the entire film. It also allows the story to have a beautiful moment of catharsis upon the moon, but it’s just conjecture. We’ll never know what Armstrong brought to the moon or what he really did up there that wasn’t televised. It’s smart of writer Josh Singer to try and anchor all of the spectacle in some genuine emotion, but knowing it isn’t real (or not knowing if it really was) distills some of the film’s power.
Perhaps the saving grace of the domestic scenes is Claire Foy’s performance as Janet Armstrong. It’s not a showy performance, quite the opposite, and that’s why it works so well. Foy and Gosling have a strange and easy chemistry between them, but it’s the moments where Janet has to keep tabs on both her children and a tough to read Neil that really allows Foy’s performance to shine. The film posits that Janet was a devoted and loving wife, and that although Neil get easily get lost in his work, she never lost sight of what their marriage meant. There’s plenty of beautiful imagery between the two where it seems a barrier keeps them from connecting, culminating in a final image that’s strangely stirring. Again, it works because of Foy’s fantastic performance, and it could’ve just as easily been milquetoast. It doesn’t quite shed any real life on the Armstrongs’ privates lives, but then again, they were such private people, no easy answers can be found about that.
The best part of the film is far and away the chronicling of the tumultuous decade of research before the Apollo 11 mission launched. This is easily the most appealing and riveting portion of the story because of how tragic and dangerous director Damien Chazelle makes everything feel. The sound design is absolutely stellar, creating a chaotic environment that snaps into complete silence in a very unnerving but beautiful way. The opening sequence with a test craft is an absolute highlight, and though the film never really manages to top that bravura scene, each of the moments aboard the various crafts have this high tension that is absolutely palpable. It’s always in the staging, the way Chazelle shows the nuts and bolts of the craft, begging us to wonder if any of this is actually safe. But what makes it tragic is how devoted all of the astronauts are to seeing the mission through. They’d give their lives to make it a success, and some do just that. If there’s one thing the film excels at, it’s deeply exploring just how the concept of getting a man to the moon was sometimes fatal, a genuine price to pay for a defining moment in history.
Where the film’s exploration of the space research stumbles a tad is in taking account for the social and political climate that surrounded it. The 60s were notorious for all of the seemingly progressive movements that were happening, not to mention that Vietnam was in full swing by the time the Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was a decade that ended with a rupture after the Manson murders, and the moon landing wasn’t too far away from that incident. It’s not that First Man needs to be about any of that, but it pays all of the historicity petty lip service to the point where it would’ve been better if it hadn’t even tried to focus on the White House and the public relations behind the space launch.
As he’s done with both Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle uses First Man to explore another side of obsession and desire, this time grounding Armstrong’s plight as something that’s obsessive only because Armstrong is using it as a means to escape the trauma of losing his daughter. That’s potent, but it stands as perhaps his weakest rumination on this particular theme up to date. More positive, however, is that Chazelle’s latest film feels nothing like the two that preceded it in almost every way. Intriguing, since the major crew behind it are all the same people who worked with Chazelle on either Whiplash or La La Land. Notably, Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is gorgeous 16mm imagery, the sound’s provided again by the incredibly talented Ai-Ling Lee, Tom Cross’s editing is smooth and efficient, and Justin Hurwitz’s score is absolutely sublime (perhaps the best part of the entire experience). If anything, First Man proves that this team is not a one-trick pony, and if anything, it should signal that there are very good things to come in the future from Chazelle as a filmmaker. It’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t quite rise up to the levels of his previous work, but it’s still a solid effort thanks to the production aspects and some great acting.