A sense of deja vu came over me throughout First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s latest collaboration with leading man Ryan Gosling.
Two years ago, I was thoroughly enchanted by Gosling’s Oscar-nominated turn in Chazelle’s La La Land, a film which, despite my affection for its actors and overall look and feel, left me rather cold. An absorbing love story and Chazelle’s palpable affection for movie musicals aside, I never felt it quite got off the ground, nor, perhaps most egregious of all, did it sport a terribly memorable soundtrack.
Fast-forward to the present awards season and, once again, I am head over heels for Gosling - for my money, First Man marks career-best work and should catapult him right toward the top in the race for Best Actor - and decidedly less enamored with the proceedings around him.
This isn’t to say First Man is a bad picture but, after being spoiled in recent years by the dazzling likes of Gravity and Hidden Figures, it marks a surprisingly ho-hum endeavor.
Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong, the legendary American astronaut who, as you may have heard, made history in 1969 as the first person to walk on the moon. First Man opens on Armstrong eight years prior to that awe-inspiring event as the test pilot finds himself on a streak of aerodynamic calamities. Colleagues are concerned he is distracted, which is indeed the case - he and wife Janet (Claire Foy) are devastated by the failing health of young daughter Karen, who ultimately succumbs to a brain tumor.
Overwhelmed with grief, Armstrong dives further into work, applying for NASA’s Project Gemini. Accepted into the program, the Armstrongs join other astronaut families in moving out to Houston. With the Soviets making progress in their spacecraft efforts, Armstrong squarely focuses on his training and, in 1966, is named commander of the aborted Gemini 8 mission. Toward the close of the decade, Armstrong is again called upon to steer the ship, this time as commander of Apollo 11. The rest, of course, is history.
First Man is at once refreshingly unsentimental and curiously uninspiring.
Gosling’s restrained portrayal of Armstrong is brimming with melancholy and deeply affecting - he keeps the picture absorbing even while Josh Singer’s screenplay proves a colossal bore. Less successful is Foy, a usually marvelous actress who hits only familiar notes as Armstrong’s fretful wife. At least Foy has some modest meat to chew on, however - the rest of the cast is uniformly underused.
From a technical perspective, First Man marks a grand achievement in sound mixing and editing, with Chazelle doing a fine, if often workmanlike job staging the mission sequences. What is ultimately, stunningly missing from the picture is any sense of awe, that intense feeling of wonderment that swept the world on July 20, 1969.
First Man marks a triumph for its leading man but otherwise doesn’t much soar.