Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a remarkable technical feat. The filmmaker takes the unofficial once-per-generation challenge to intensify the verisimilitude in the cinematic depiction of space travel and rises to it. The title refers to the historic 1969 touchdown on the Earth’s moon realized by Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the crew of Apollo 11, but the film painstakingly traces the ordeals NASA went through in order to complete that improbable mission. Chazelle emphasizes the clunky mechanics of the early spacecraft, all thudding doors, rickety joysticks, and clicking dials, none of it inspiring immediate confidence that it is prepared to cut across galaxies. Tension arises from the plainest observation of astronauts and other NASA employees doing their jobs, calculating miracles with math sketched out on graph paper. The editing, cinematography, art direction, and sound design combine to place the viewer right in the confined capsules, where wonderment and dread intertwine trembling fingers.
Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a sad dramatic failure. Working from a screenplay credited to Josh Singer (and officially adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong), Chazelle ticks off all the necessary details and remains doggedly true to the spirit of the times and the dignity of the people involved. He also can’t past the surface of the story. In part, this at least feels right, aligning the fiction with the famed reticence of the man it depicts, who was loathe to capitalize on his place in the history books. Gosling does commendable character work as Armstrong, but he struggles to find inner life behind the engineer’s stoicism. Claire Foy fares better as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, benefitting from the moments of emotional fire built into the script. And the one attempt to give Armstrong a lengthy emotional arc culminates in a lunar surface moment of transparent falsehood. It doesn’t call anything the precedes it into doubt. Instead, it stands out in damning contrast to the film’s prevailing exactitude.
Since Chazelle has made his name with films about music, it feels appropriate to rely on a metaphor from that world. First Man is all rhythm, no melody. It makes an impression, but it doesn’t linger.