When making a biopic, be that from scratch or based on a book, I would say that the first item on your checklist should be: is the person interesting…
It is no secret that Armstrong is a quiet man, a man who has little to no interest in being famous, or well known. He shuns the media whenever he can and is roundly described as a quiet thinker.
This wouldn’t immediately leap out to me as someone you should make a biographical movie about, I’d even go as far to say it’s the exact opposite of what you are looking for.
Still, director Damien Chazelle (“La La Land“, “Whiplash”), brought in writer Josh Singer (“The Post“, “The West Wing (TV)”) to write the screenplay based on James R. Hansen’s book, about Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
Thus, we are left with First Man, a film that runs to nearly two and a half hours and very much follows in Armstrong’s footprints. Being that great swathes of it are quiet, with shots of the moon and/or a black sky.
Whilst Armstrong’s life has some interest, given what he has been through and achieved, this sadly doesn’t translate to the screen. The film feels like swimming in thick treacle, not helped by the constant use of shaky-camera mode (the Steadicam having been introduced some six years after the Apollo mission is no excuse for not using it) which is jarring and off putting.
Gosling smiles little in the movie (despite one of the documentaries on the DVD saying that Neil was a funny guy, someone who could really open up, I guess the makers missed that bit) and his on-screen wife, Claire Foy (“The Crown (TV)”, “Unsane“), smiles even less.
Even when told he’s been selected for the NASA programme, or that he’s going to the moon, to say Armstrong’s reaction is muted is a massive understatement, he barely cracks a smile.
This dour persona, according to the makers, comes from Armstrong having lost a child at a young age, something he never talks about, it’s also muted it may be because he loses so many of his friends and colleagues during the build up to the moon mission. Either way, whilst tragic, it makes for a tough watch.
The film cares not for your sense of time either. In one scene, Foy answers the door to a neighbour and is pregnant, we cut back to Gosling in training, then he’s sat in the house staring at a sleeping baby who is more than a few days old. There’s no other sense that time has passed, and I realise the baby is meant to portray this, but it feels a cack-handed way of going about it and, again, adds to the jarring experience.
It’s obviously not all bad for First Man. The effects are brilliant and the sound is outstanding. You are, in many cases literally, strapped in with the astronauts as the rockets ignite. The metal creeks and groans and there’s bangs and pops that are more than a touch disconcerting. One can only imagine what it must be like being strapped into these things!
But, and it’s a big one, if you want to watch a film about an Apollo mission, the 1995 Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks is much, much better. And if you want to watch a film with great special effects about astronauts in space, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is one to see. Personally, I struggle to find space for First Man.
The DVD has: deleted scenes and the documentaries: Shooting for the Moon, Preparing to Launch, Giant Leap in One Small Step, Mission Gone Wrong, Putting You in the Seat, Recreating the Moon Landing, Shooting at NASA, Astronaut Training and commentary from Chazelle, Singer and editor Tom Cross.