First Man – Review

Worth seeing: for the stunning, visceral cinematography in an otherwise disappointingly underwhelming biopic about the least interesting man in the most interesting science mission of the 20th Century
Director:Damien Chazelle
Featuring:Ryan Gosling, Ciarán Hinds, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham
Length:141 minutes
Released:12th October 2018


It’s the early 1960s and the Space Race has begun.

The Soviets are well in the lead, having been the first to launch a satellite and then beaten the United States to getting a man into space.

But the Americans are determined to win the biggest prize of all – to be the first to put a man on the moon.

The space agency NASA recruits the best and the brightest scientists, engineers and pilots from the military and civilian life to take part in a series of space programmes aimed at testing every last element that will need to be in place to reach the holy grail of space exploration.

Scarred by tragedy in his personal life, the quiet concentration and steely determination of one of those recruits, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), helps him rise up the ranks until NASA picks him over the larger-than-life Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to be the first man to step on the moon.


The first moon landing is, almost without question – unless you’re one of those conspiracy theorists – mankind’s single greatest achievement; nearly 50 years later – as this week’s news has shown us – mankind has trouble even getting out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

So a film about a key figure in this achievement should be among the most thrilling and whatever the global equivalent of patriotic is to grace our big screens.

But somehow – despite some breath-taking cinematography, visceral close-ups and nerve-jangling action sequences, the film never really blasts off.

It’s certainly interesting for revealing some of the crucial elements of the project that history has largely forgotten – such as the number of astronauts killed during the various tests – and the sense of period is immaculate, but exciting as it should have been, it lacks any tension, because as one of the most famous moments in modern history, everyone knows how it turns out.

So, from a dramatic point of view at least, the most important thing for the director Damien Chazelle to achieve is to make his protagonists compelling but it’s simply the case that an efficient and reliable operator, such as Neil Armstrong, just doesn’t make for a particularly interesting character. He’s interesting for no reason other than the fact that he ended up coming off the subs bench to become the first man on the moon – even though he was never anyone’s first choice.

The most gripping films are about the mavericks or people who do what you wouldn’t expect them to do. In that sense, last year’s Hidden Figures was a more stand-out film about America’s space programme, told through the eyes of a black woman who against the odds, found herself at the heart of NASA’s mathematical team.

The film sets Armstrong up as a thoroughly honourable operator, who fully deserved the kudos of being the first on the moon, compared with Buzz Aldrin, who’s presented as a bit of an oaf – but his brash, controversial approach doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on the way he’s perceived by the bosses – perhaps Second Man might have made for a more entertaining film; about a bumbling ball of controversy – the Boris Johnson of aeronautics, if you like – who makes the cut for the first mission to the moon, despite offending most people in NASA and beyond.

After two of the most ground-breaking films of the past few years, it’s disappointing that Chazelle’s third film makes less of an impact, especially given the subject matter; perhaps the most interesting thing about First Man is the fact that the director of La La Land and Whiplash has used almost no music at all this time.

There’s been some controversy surrounding Chazelle’s decision not to show the moment that the Star Spangled Banner is planted in the moon’s surface – even the President himself made an unusual foray into social media to suggest that the film was unpatriotic – but given that the whole premise, strongly repeated throughout, is that this is a race to beat the Soviets, that is one piece of criticism that – typically – is likely to have come from people who haven’t actually seen it.

First Man is perfectly enjoyable on its own terms, but for anyone who already knows the story, it’s a disappointingly underwhelming background story for such a significant and exciting moment in the history of human endeavour.