There's a resonant moment toward the end of "First Man" in which American astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), having just become the first man to press his space boot into the moon's powdery dust, stands motionless, sealed off behind the face pane on his helmet, simply taking in the vast lunar solitude spread out around him. Director Damien Chazelle aptly captures this grand scene with a big 65mm IMAX camera (IMAX is definitely the way to see this movie), and it creates a rare moment of wonder. The rest of the picture is oddly earthbound.
The movie's script, by Josh Singer (who also worked on "The Post" and "Spotlight," two other over-heralded films), is based on a breathless 2005 biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen. Naturally, the book plumbs the man's whole life. We, however, are only concerned with a small part of it: the 21 hours in July of 1969 that Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (played here by Corey Stoll) spent bagging and tagging dirt and rocks and (briefly) pogoing around on the moon.
Because that's not really enough action to support a whole movie — especially one that runs long at two hours and 20 minutes — Chazelle is compelled to reach back to Armstrong's days as a test pilot in the early 1960s, and then follow him as he works his way up through the evolving levels of the U.S. space program, which had been heavily trumpeted by President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was irked by Soviet extraterrestrial successes with the first Sputnik satellite and the launching of the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into outer space. In 1961, he decreed that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The movie opens with a blast of aural and visual chaos — a harbinger of much to come. Rocked by the sounds of screaming metal and an onslaught of extreme shaky-cam, we find that we've joined Armstrong on a test flight high above the clouds over the Mojave Desert. We understand immediately that this man and his fellow pilots are operating complex machinery in highly dangerous situations that they are barely able to control. But as we continue flying the skies with them, the noise and the juddering visual blur grow monotonous. (It doesn't help that Chazelle also uses unstable hand-held cameras to shoot quiet interior scenes down on the ground.)
The movie's greatest burden is its characters. These are not the tough, colorful guys of "The Right Stuff." Armstrong and his fellow astronauts (played by Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit and Lukas Haas, among other solid actors) are straight-arrow science nerds; we never learn much about them, and they're such a monochromatic bunch that's it's difficult to keep track of who each of them is supposed to be. They're fearless, without question, but utterly inexpressive. Gosling is an actor of many talents, but anyone who's seen him in "Drive" or the dismal "Only God Forgives" will know that he is an especially gifted virtuoso of the empty gaze — the ability to become lost in the middle distance as the camera settles in for an extended closeup of his sighing eyes. This gets monotonous, too, although Chazelle tries to find a use for it in a scene in which Armstrong's wife, Janet (Claire Foy in a thankless role), demands that he tell his two sons, before he heads out on his big moon shot, that he might not be coming back. The director wants us to see Armstrong's extreme disinclination to give voice to this information as typical male fear of revealing emotion, which it could be. But is that a complete reading? The message feels a little anachronistic — much more of the here-and-now than of the there-and-then.
Midway through the film, Chazelle gives us a sweet little scene in which Armstrong and his wife, listening to a favorite song on their living room hi-fi, gently slide into each other's arms for an impromptu slow dance. It's a rare moment of natural warmth, and the picture could have used more of them. But Gosling's intentional lack of effect starves the movie of human feeling. To compensate, Chazelle exploits a family tragedy involving Armstrong's little daughter, Karen, who — as we see at the beginning of the film — died of a brain tumor at the age of 2. Whenever the movie reaches a point of maximum visual turbulence and screaming metal overload, we're given a flashback to this adorable little girl (she's played by Lucy Stafford). This eventually becomes annoying, as if we're being given a lollipop to stop complaining.
And Karen — or one of her possessions — is also the linchpin for the story's most devastating scene, which I won't describe but which takes place on the moon and would qualify as a shameless emotional manipulation if it weren't true. Unfortunately, it turns out that it's not. In interviews, screenwriter Singer has admitted that this, the movie's only really touching moment, is a piece of speculative invention by book author Hansen, which Singer happily went along with.
Knowing this, you might not feel like doing the same.