First Man

First Man

By Joanna Langfield

It’s a puzzle how a film with so many admirable parts can, for me, not come together.

Damien Chazelle’s ambitious epic balances the stoicism of a great American hero with his deeply held, very personal emotions. This story of Neil Armstrong has been adapted from James R. Hansen’s book and pointedly allows the inner life of the first man to walk on the moon to take center stage. But the multi-year time span is told to us in pieces, chopped and choppy. We meet Armstrong’s professional family, along with his wife and children, we see triumphs and disasters. Much of it feels episodic, a few scenes nailing their intended impact, others missing that mark in a mix of beautiful camerawork and often incomprehensible dialogue. For the record, I am not complaining about the audio mix during the more technical blastoff scenes. We shouldn’t be able to hear anything in the appropriate, deafening noise of those. I’m talking about the more intimate scenes, several of which we strain to hear.

But, then again, who needs to hear anything as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin begin their descent onto the moon? That sequence is legitimately breathtaking. And while it may not reveal the feel-good money shot of an American flag being planted on the lunar surface (we do see the flag there though, not to worry), there is an exquisite moment involving a glimpse of Earth I won’t forget for a long time.

Ryan Gosling brings a righteous gravity to the high flying man but it’s his wife Janet, as perfectly played by Claire Foy, who fascinated me. It’s great to see attention being paid to male heroes modern audiences may or may not remember; let’s not toss aside the women who supported them. Their stories, too, are dynamic and essential.