With familiar expectations to those preceding Christopher Nolan's Interstallar, the lead up to FIRST MAN was energised and exciting. Audiences love realistic science-based adventure and with cinema-technology being bigger and better than ever we were salivating at the thought of a new big screen space odyssey. And the question on everyone's lips is whether or not the movie delivers? The answer is... sort of.
There is no denying the size and the scope of FIRST MAN, and its realistic depiction of space is awe-inspiring. The time we spend with the astronauts inside 'The Eagle' and the numerous test modules is cramped and claustrophobic. This is, perhaps, the first time we are given an inkling into the true discomfort those men endured, and just how miraculous their journey was. Their story has been told before, however Chazelle's film is as personal as we should feel inclined to get with these people.
In contrast to the confined quarters of the spacecraft is the enormous scope of space itself, and of the Moon's surface. Such wonderfully reenacted sights remind us of the value of cinema, and why we need to hold tight to the big-screen experience. And yet with the journey from Earth to the moon being the whole crux of the story, very little time is actually spent on its depiction. Instead, over three-quarters of its absurdly long 141-minute running time is dedicated to Armstrong's personal life, observing his supposed social inadequacies. More time is invested in his tumultuous relationship with his wife, and the loss of their daughter, than is given to the entire NASA program that should be the foundation of the story.
Of course I do understand that this is a biographical account of one man's story, and that his personal circumstances play an integral role in his journey, however with that being said, the title of the film suggests a much bigger legacy. FIRST MAN implies a story of one of mankind's greatest achievements and might have served itself well to remember that.
Also adding unnecessary conflict to the fray is Chazelle's clunky approach to the cinematography. Choosing to be as realistic and interpersonal as possible he presents disjointed and conflicting styles when capturing the drama and action respectively. Considering the majority of time spent on his personal life, most of the film is shot in extreme close up. Forget about two-shots because whenever he or his wife are talking, the camera choses to focus on just one. And then cut to the other for their response, and back again and so forth. To make it even more cumbersome the camera is hand-held and shaky... not exactly appealing on a gigantic cinema screen. Contrasting this is the massive scope of the space stuff. When we're in space with Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins it is a sight to behold. The majesty of their endeavour is breathtaking and there has rarely been such a wonderful use of the screen. And there lies a major problem with FIRST MAN. What does it want to be? A relationship drama better suited to home entertainment, or an ambitious spectacle made for a wide theatrical release? These are two styles which do not compliment each other at all.
In terms of performances there isn't much to fault. Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy give adequate turns as the misaligned couple and make the best out of the script as possible. It must be said that Gosling appears to be miscast, baring zero resemblance to the actual Neil Armstrong, and I can't help but think that a variety of alternative A-list actors could have sold the character more convincingly. But with a suspension of disbelief this is easy overlooked.
The remaining cast makes for the type of ensemble you might find in a Robert Altman film, with some very familiar faces taking very little part in the proceedings. Of the immediate supporting cast, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Daniel Stoll lend a lot of appeal and offer strong support. Other blink-and-you'll-miss-them faces include Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Ethan Embry and Ciaran Hinds. All familiar faces. All deserving of more than a basic cameo. And most astonishing to me is the underutilisation of actor Lucas Haas who plays Michael Collins, the third astronaut inside the Eagle upon its historical mission.
FIRST MAN is an ambitious but uneven spectacle, which should have been better. I guess we can expect another musical from Damien Cazelle moving forward. There's nothing wrong with being a one-trick-pony if you do it well, and when it comes to musically-minded movies he is a qualified pro.... but when it comes to high concept, big budget block busters... FIRST MAN suggest otherwise. I recommend watching Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks' fantastic mini-series From Earth To The Moon instead.