Review: First Man

I love Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Drive, The Notebook). I love space dramas, and true stories, and American heroes. I’m a big fan of director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land). But I just didn’t love First Man – much as I really, really wanted to. It’s a solid flick, for sure, with some great visual effects and a moving narrative about the risks and sacrifices astronaut Neil Armstrong (and many others) took in one way or another to advance our exploration of space. I was a mere toddler when Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, but I can assure you I was plopped in front of the TV along with half the planet to watch history unfold. No #FakeNews here! President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge, and we sent a man to the moon. How awesome is that? This is the stuff of movies! Which brings me back to… First Man.

Its heart is in the right place. The film, based on the book by James R. Hansen and adapted for the big screen by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), looks at the life of Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to the historic Apollo 11 flight – the astronomically dangerous mission that ultimately resulted in “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

We learn that Armstrong had to rise above personal tragedy – the loss of his two-year-old daughter Karen to a brain tumor in 1962 – to maintain the presence of mind to pursue spaceflight. And that his first wife, Janet (Claire Foy, TV’s The Crown) did most of the heavy-lifting in the child-rearing department while Armstrong was off training.

We get to see what made Armstrong tick, and how his stoic demeanor – portrayed with spot-on efficiency by Gosling – informed his actions on the ground, in the air, and even on the moon. We are reminded of the equally dedicated and ambitious men who didn’t get to take those famous steps but were there in spirit. Success did not come without failure.

First Man has all the ingredients of a great drama. It has plenty of poignant, powerful, sad, joyous and awe-inspiring scenes. It has an excellent cast. A stirring score. And you can’t help but feel a certain sense of nostalgia and pride in what Armstrong, NASA and the nation was able to accomplish, punctuated by the pronouncement that the “Eagle has Landed.” So why didn’t I love it? I’m still mulling that over. On a visceral level, it simply didn’t yield the type of emotional, gravitational pull that I felt watching films like Apollo 13, October Sky, The Martian, Hidden Figures, Gravity, The Right Stuff. Perhaps I would have gotten more out of it on a bigger screen (I didn’t see it in IMAX). But I kinda doubt it. Chalk this one up to a good film that falls a tad short of the greatness it depicts.

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