‘First Man’ is a well-done motion picture that’s nearly as complex as its main character
First Man (rated B)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke
Genre: Biographical drama
According to NASA, the distance between Earth and its moon is 225,623 miles at its closest, and 252,088 at its farthest. On average, that’s about 238,855 miles.
Scientists say that means about 28 to 32 Earths can fit in that space. Needless to say, that’s pretty darn far! By most accounts, on average, it takes about three days to get from Earth to the moon.
And you’ll feel you’re on at least the second or even third leg of a lengthy lunar mission while watching the new, nearly two-and-a-half-hour biopic (141 minutes to be exact) “First Man”. It is perhaps the most critical flaw in an otherwise pretty awe-inspiring movie.
Based on the biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by author James R. Hansen, it is a first-person account of the astronaut who became the first man to walk on the moon. It focuses on Armstrong’s personal and professional life between 1961 and the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, and the sacrifices and costs to both Armstrong and the United States.
Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong, teaming up with his Oscar-winning director from “La La Land” (2016), Damien Chazelle. It’s written by Josh Singer, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 2015 Oscar-winning Best Picture “Spotlight”.
If you’re like me and think “La La Land” and “Spotlight” were two of the most overrated and “over-accoladed” movies so far this decade, don’t hold that against these gentlemen, nor “First Man”. Just remember Chazelle also directed (and wrote) the excellent “Whiplash” (2014), and Singer co-wrote last year’s intriguing “The Post”.
But like NASA and the United States’ (U.S.) space program, “First Man” presents lots of ups and downs and highs and lows. When it’s up, it soars as high as the moon. It is an amazing visual achievement with stunning sound effects, a beautiful and stirring musical score at times, and moments of little sound and even silence, exactly when they’re needed.
It immediately starts off with breathtaking fury and energy. And there are many more such moments that’ll have you on the edge of your seat – tense and intense scenes that’ll make you feel you are right there in a rocket or up in space.
But these are quite spaced out, and in between are some very difficult and often dour and depressing moments – Armstrong and his family were going through a lot!
There’s also the bureaucracy and politics of a government agency in the U.S. in the 1960s, and all the jitteriness of the space race against the Soviet Union.
While on their own, these are quite compelling tales, for some reason, when mixed in with the science fiction-esque action, there emerges a sense of disjointedness, as if we’re watching several different movies. Undoubtedly, this could have been tightened up.
Outside of this flaw, we do get great insight into that space program, and what many saw as a massive waste of resources at a time of still immense poverty and inequality in parts of the U.S. – criticisms which could be levied against all such programs today, including the burgeoning private space travel movement.
All of this thought-provoking material comes in a pseudo sci-fi package, and one that can easily compare with some of the genre’s recent standouts like “Gravity” (2013) or “Interstellar” (2014), both of which won Oscars for Best Visual Effects.
On top of that, we get some very good performances, particularly the dynamic duo of Gosling and Claire Foy, who plays Armstrong’s wife Janet.
We’ve known these two were spectacular on their own for some time now, but Gosling and Foy (who’s helped to grow admiration for Queen Elizabeth II again in Netflix’s “The Crown”) really know how to command attention, whether alone or in a scene together, and whether they’re speaking or just staring at something in silence.
So, get your rocket-boosters in full throttle mode, or whatever it takes to help power through the moon crater-sized dips in energy. “First Man” is a well-done motion picture that’s nearly as complex as its main character and a testament to the astronomical things mankind can overcome and achieve when we put our minds to it.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.