'First Man' film review: Gosling, Chazelle re-team for space exploration drama
The space race drama "First Man" (opening in theaters nationwide Oct. 12) has two distinct gears: bone-jarring space ride and plodding, sober relationship drama. Director Damien Chazelle's latest is a cinematic marvel punctuated with nerve-racking flight sequences - and a lot of slow-paced drama that borders on boring.
In short: As the space race heats up, astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) prepares for the mission to put the first man on the Moon. Also stars Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll.
"First Man" works best when it immerses the audience in the sheer risk and danger of space flight. Chazelle's film smartly focuses on the experience of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts, as they attempt to accomplish the impossible while riding in experimental vehicles that, even when everything works right, is still fraught with countless dangers. This ever-present danger permeates all facets of Armstrong's life, as he watches fallen fellow pilots leave behind widows.
This constant "what will go wrong" dread peaks during the test flight scenes - and Chazelle makes the vitally important decision to focus on the astronauts. A lessor film would give in the urge to show the space vehicles in distress with stunning wide shots, showing a vehicle tumbling helplessly in space - but not this film. Dizzying, stomach churning set pieces are told through entirely from the perspective of Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. This highlights the insane challenges of space travel, as the astronauts are wedged into a way-too-small vehicle with poor outside visibility, forced to rely completely on their vehicle instruments. The crowning achievement of "First Man" is its grasp on the terrifying dangers of space travel and the incredible skills and nerves required of its astronauts.
Yet, this film is first and foremost centered on Neil Armstrong. "First Man" falls into the same trap that many other - some great - biopics have succumbed to: trying to tell a single story that spans years. The result is a first act set in 1961, then abruptly lurches ahead several years later for the second act. This is a necessary evil to tell a story that spans nearly a decade, however, it also results in some whiplash-inducing storytelling, as the film abruptly vaults from plot point to plot point.
The tonal difference between the jarring flight scenes and the dramatic NASA/family scenes is uneven. The space sequences are loud, stunning scenes that demand to be experienced on the largest screen possible. The Neil-centric scenes are slower and quiet - a tone largely dictated by Gosling's inward and stoic performance. These scenes keep the story progressing forward, as Neil trudges forward in the face of possible death by exploding rocket - but these scenes come dangerously close to 'boring' territory.
The relationship between Neil and his wife Janet (Foy) is a fundamental thread of the film - however, the two characters have little to no chemistry and they arguably only have a single strong scene between them. Neil's stoic aloofness puts him at a distance from Janet, who spends most of the film looking nervous. Her character is limited in scope because she is singularly defined by the constant danger of Neil's risky job. These two characters do not have much character dynamic as the story elects to establish an underlying tension between Neil and Janet rather than have them directly engage each other.
Final verdict: "First Man" is an all-engrossing thrill ride when Gosling is in the cockpit but becomes a merely serviceable docudrama around when he's Earthbound. Pull the action sequences out of this film and what's left is a good but not great film.
"First Man" opens in IMAX and standard theaters Oct. 12. This dramatic biopic is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language has a running time of 141 minutes.