The one fine moment in Damien Chazelle’s overblown First Man comes near the end. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) paces in silence behind a big glass window. He’s been to the moon and back; he’s in quarantine, and he looks lost. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) visits. The two stand on opposite sides of the glass; they don’t look at each other. Then they put their fingers to the glass, like prisoners, which essentially, they are. From the start of the movie, they’ve been clueless about how to relate to one another.
Otherwise, First Man might be renamed “The Shaky Camera.” The film opens with the camera shaking to show danger when Armstrong flies the X-15 experimental airplane. It shakes in his astronaut training; it shakes when he and Janet are at home; it shakes when he goes to the moon. You spend most of the film trying to see what’s going on, and you must wonder about the picture’s addiction to incoherent fast pans and pointless edits. If there’s something to take in, First Man makes sure you can’t.
The material itself puts up a challenge. The main event is famous – everybody knows that in 1969, Neil Armstrong commanded the mission called Apollo 11 and became the first human being to set foot on the moon. It’s also no secret that Armstrong, who died in 2012, was a fine engineer and pilot, but not much of a talker. The film could accept those givens, but instead it distracts the audience with incoherence. You see right quick that the work is dangerous, and things go wrong, but Armstrong gets no credit for his cool – you get how it would look to us, but you don’t get to see how what’s dizzying to us, is orderly to him. Great athletes say that when they’re on their game, everything slows down; they can see what others cannot. A fast pitch in baseball scares the hell out of non-players, but the good batters even see its spin.
Certainly, that’s how it looked to Armstrong, and it’s too bad First Man only shows the jumble and won’t credit the guy with his immense talents. But it seems that Director Chazelle and writer Josh Singer have trouble finding their subject. Scenes have no drama; they don’t command attention and make the next scene essential to the story. If you cut a third of them out of the movie, it would make no difference because they have no urgency.
The film plods step by step through Armstrong’s career and some of his life. The Right Stuff, which Phillip Kaufman directed in 1983 from the wild book by Tom Wolfe, saw the nuttiness in the space program. Not that the work and the goals were irresponsible, but that ambition at that level is kind of crazy. It’s what makes the whole business fabulous. Kaufman and Wolfe saw how ambition, talent and personality sometimes slide together and sometimes clash. The Right Stuff gets the hilarity of the political situation; Lyndon Johnson’s hissy fit in a car is a gem of playful brilliance, while First Man stays glum about most everything. First Man may want to compare the unhappy Armstrong marriage to the triumph of the moon landing, but the movie loses the victory and just winds up with the silent misery of two poorly-matched people.
So, as reverent as First Man is, the film shorts both the incredible achievement and the personal life. You never really get to appreciate, for instance, what a spectacular job Armstrong did to land the craft amid the rocks and craters on the moon. At the same time, First Man glimpses only the surface of how life went for Neil and Janet Armstrong. Armstrong’s gesture to his life while he stands on the moon looks cheap, because the movie has yet to look beneath the obvious to how his life and work are part of the same guy.