Gosling and Chazelle pilot ‘First Man’ toward success

“First Man” is the second collaboration between director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling. Chazelle initially broke onto the scene with “Whiplash”, which picked up three Oscars back in 2014. He followed that up with “La La Land” in 2016, which became a phenomenon. Two years later he’s back, with “La La Land” star Gosling in tow, to bring this cinematic telling of the moon landing to audiences everywhere. It’s a slow-paced character piece, which is almost never my cup of tea. Even so, I found myself enjoying many moments during this two-and-a-half-hour biopic.

Neil Armstrong is the centerpiece of this film, which brings a lot of focus onto Goslings performance. Gosling plays Armstrong as soft spoken and emotionally subdued in almost everything he does. The audience is provided with plenty of close- ups of Gosling throughout the film, which gives us the opportunity to read what little emotion is there. In that way, one could say Gosling’s performance is nuanced. It worked well during most of the film and it made the parts where Armstrong gets visibly emotional stick out and hit home in a big way. However, especially as the film gets closer to the moon landing, I did have this nagging thought that Armstrong seemed almost indifferent to the fact that humans were about to go to the freaking moon. It was certainly an unexpected reaction, but it felt in-character and maybe it matched up with the real Armstrong, I don’t know.

With such a focus on Armstrong though, many of the side characters felt lacking. Claire Foy (“The Crown”) as Janet Armstrong was the one big standout. From dealing with Neil being away, the family’s difficulties at home and the death of other astronauts, Janet has a lot to deal with in this movie. I thought Foy handled every situation her character was put in as well as possible. She goes through a whirlwind of emotions throughout the film but never strays from believability. This film is likely going to get some Oscar buzz and I’m putting my hat in for Foy as Best Supporting Actress.

Outside of Janet, there were few side characters that hooked me. There are two astronauts who are shown more than others towards the beginning of the film, but they don’t stay around long enough to foster any connections with the audience. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is in two or three scenes before suddenly he’s assigned to the Apollo crew to go to the moon. Many of the heads of NASA are briefly introduced, but for much of the film they are only heard speaking through headsets during missions. Even some of the astronauts on the missions get little introduction, if any. However, the focus of the film is Neil, and he likely didn’t know most of these people well and it would take too long for the film to introduce all of them. Still, there is a handful of scenes that would have been far more effective had I been invested in more of the supporting characters.

In regard to its technical elements, the film unsurprisingly excels. We’re put inside the tight quarters of early spacecrafts with low lighting and restricted viewing, giving everything a claustrophobic feel. The astronauts are accompanied by near- complete silence, save for the ship creaking as though it may fall to bits at any instance. It always feels like the astronauts are one moment away from everything falling apart. Sometimes it does. Suddenly the camera shakes like it’s doing the hokey pokey, alerts go off and pilots frantically hit switches that should probably be doing something. This gave suspense to many moments throughout the film, even when I knew the characters were going to be okay. I felt each mission (aside from the Apollo 11) could have ended in failure.

These moments were able to keep me engaged in a slow-paced film that may have otherwise lost my interest. As a noted non- fan of slow films, I was surprised by how gripping most of the film was. However, once we got to the moon landing I really started to feel the film’s sluggish pacing. There is such a great deal of work that goes into building some suspense for the home stretch of the lunar landing that I really just wanted to get to the moon already. That was when the film lost me. Once we get on the moon, we are treated to some stunning shots and some moments that do a good job of putting the audience in the shoes of the astronauts. Still, I was feeling the slow pacing toward the end.

Given the type of film I knew this to be, I did not expect to enjoy it. However, the powerful, emotional moments from Gosling and Foy and the film’s tense astronaut action continually pulled me back into the film whenever I thought I might be checking out. As the credits rolled, though, my horrific impatience won out. I don’t feel the need to see this again soon, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.. If you love slower, character-driven films, you’ll really enjoy “First Man.” And if you usually don’t, I would still recommend checking it out. You might be surprised, like me.