3/10 April 20, 1962, less than 60 years after mankind first took wing. In the experimental North American X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft, Neil Armstrong climbs to 207,500 feet, more than seven times the height of Mount Everest. Armstrong attempts to dive back to Earth, but the aircraft bounces off the outside of the stratosphere. His control surfaces find no purchase on the thin air around him, and the X-15 begins to fall uncontrollably into outer space. Using the reaction control system, spacecraft thrusters designed to maneuver even in the endless vacuum, Armstrong banks the craft sideways and slices his way back into the atmosphere.
His pen and other knickknacks begin to float as tidal forces warp inside the cockpit. Though it was surely a top-of-the-line aircraft for its time, the X-15 feels like it could fall apart at any minute. The 2018 audience has truly stepped into a plane built in the 1960s. The camera stays in the cockpit and fixates mostly on Armstrong’s face, every blast of turbulence magnified by the seemingly unlatched camera’s bouncing. In surely one of the most pulse-pounding cold opens in cinematic history, First Man genuinely makes viewers feel that Armstrong is in mortal peril years before his final triumph.
Then, Armstrong touches down and visits the hospital, where his third child is dying of brain cancer-related pneumonia – in reality, this happened a few months before the flight over Pasadena – and the camera is still stapled to his face, footage put through a harsh, grainy filter with a handheld shake that’s comparable to the X-15’s turbulence, and you realize the entire fucking movie is going to be like that.
First Man tells the story — or at least, is set concurrently with the story — of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) becoming the first man on the Moon. While this was an intensive, demanding process, the movie doesn’t show most of it, instead opting to show Armstrong moping while more interesting things happen off-screen. His wife, Janet (Claire Foy), also does a significant amount of moping.
Through all the moping and all the distinct lack of space exploration action — barring the three main sequences conspicuously placed at the exact beginning, middle and end points to make sure audiences don’t get what eight out of 10 studies have determined qualifies as “bored” — the camera stays right where it is, in Gosling’s face, janking around like it’s the end of the world.
Imagine watching a normal movie on your iPhone in the back of a Jeep with no suspension on a dirt road. That’s what First Man is like. It’s absolutely infuriating and consumes every other aspect of the film. I’m OK getting a bit of motion sickness pulling 9 Gs with Neil Armstrong while punching a hole in the Earth’s atmosphere. I’m not OK getting motion sickness while he’s walking from his front door to his driveway and nothing else is happening.
And yes, I know it’s supposed to be reflective of Armstrong’s mental turmoil after losing his daughter, I get it, but why is that the only trick director Damien Chazelle can think of to communicate that? Uncontrolled handheld work like this is every unoriginal action director’s go-to to mask poor choreography, could he really not come up with a better way to express what Armstrong is feeling?
First Man is obviously much more concerned with the difficulty of losing a child than it is with the difficulty of going to the Moon, and I’m really not sure what the point is of focusing on that. Millions of people have lost children. It happens every day. Armstrong is one of 12 people in all of human history to have walked on another celestial body. Making his story about this incredibly mundane, if traumatic, aspect of his life is a horrifying misuse of his story and a slap in the face to NASA, and indeed all of humanity.
In order to get to the Moon, we had to develop a rocket more powerful than any that had yet been built, design equipment that would work in zero gravity and suits that would allow a person to survive without any atmosphere, develop more powerful computers and a myriad of other things, any one of which could have been turned into a significant, interesting plot and any one of which could have been integrated into this movie’s dumb choice of themes. Instead, we get a deeply unsatisfying, damn near impossible to watch movie about Ryan Gosling standing still while the camera moves for him.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.