Whether “First Man” was trying to prove a specific point about exploration and human achievement, I don’t know. What I do know is that after watching it, I’m starting to think that going to the moon was not such a good idea. It doesn’t entirely shy away from suggesting to the audience the impracticality of the lunar missions. Everyone in the theater probably had one or two moments where they laughed at something that was said that emphasized some slightly absurd aspect of the mission. And basically, the only real reason that it gives for continuing the mission was “we can’t let the Russians keep showing us up.” That may not be completely historically accurate, but I doubt it’s that far from the truth.
Having seen Damien Chazelle’s two most famous movies, “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” I was expecting that we might get more of a story about self-destruction than inspiring accomplishments. While there is some focus on the emotional stresses placed on Neil Armstrong in his lunar mission, there is more attention given to the danger that all of the astronauts are put in throughout the missions. I think this was done to add to the drama of whether Armstrong would come back safely and to give weight to his decision to stick with the space voyages. Still, there is only so much drama that can be generated in a story when we already know the ending. This kind of became a problem throughout the movie, because there were several scenes, especially toward the end, that were elongated to add drama, but they ended up taking me out of the movie.
As might be expected, this is a much different movie than Damien Chazelle’s previous two projects, but I thought he did a pretty good job of directing the space-travel scenes. I sensed that he took a lot of influence from “Interstellar,” especially in the Gemini docking sequence. The opening sequence was pretty intense and engaging, and it set the tone well for the movie. Also, I would warn all people who have epilepsy or feel sick from disorienting, shaking and spinning camerawork: this movie has a lot of that.
The dialogue scenes were done quite well, though less noticeably so. There were a few pacing issues that I had with the script, but the individual scenes were written very well. I doubt that Josh Singer will get much award recognition for his work on the script, but I would trust him to deliver a good script based on his work here. Despite that, there were a lot of scenes that I thought moved way too slowly, which made the movie as a whole drag a bit.
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy could get nominations for their performances. Gosling was always a welcome presence, and Foy did very well in her role, even if her performance felt a little like Oscar bait.
There was a fair amount of individual attention given to Foy’s character, Janet Shearon. As I left the theater and discussed the movie with the four people I went with, it seemed that none of us felt like it had been a waste of time, but neither had it wowed any of us in any regard. I would still recommend seeing it, maybe not in theaters, but it will make you think some big thoughts. By this I don’t mean that it will leave you feeling empowered to defy the odds or anything like that. If anything it might make you want to take that voice telling you to quit a little more seriously. But it might give you some new ideas about some major world issues.