The Movie Guru: Ryan Gosling best part of emotionally distant ‘First Man’
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What: “First Man.”
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril and breif strong language.
Screenplay by: Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and more.
Grade: Three stars.
If “First Man” was a clickbait article, the headline would be “Local man goes to space to avoid talking about his feelings.”
Honestly, it probably should have been a tagline to the movie. A look at Neil Armstrong’s life in the years leading up to that first walk on the moon, “First Man” is a beautiful movie that never quite manages to reach the audience’s heart. True, the movie has to contend with Armstrong’s apparent emotional reserve — the movie is based on an authorized biography by James R. Hansen — but the screenplay and direction re-enforce that reserve rather than trying to overcome it. Ryan Gosling tries to let us inside Armstrong’s mind through the sheer power of his acting, but it’s never quite enough to bridge the distance between Armstrong and the audience.
Attitudes to trauma
The movie covers Armstrong’s life through the decade or so leading up to the walk (for the space nerds out there, it’s from his selection for the Gemini program to just after he gets back from the moon). There’s a strong suggestion that Armstrong applied to the program to keep busy after the death of his young daughter, who succumbed to cancer after a long and difficult battle. Highlights and traumas from both space programs are discussed, including several deaths, but the through line is Armstrong struggling to cope with the death of his daughter.
At least that’s my educated guess, because Armstrong himself refuses to talk about it. In fact, his absolute refusal to talk about trauma becomes a major theme of both the movie and his life, fleeing funerals of fellow astronauts and trying to sneak off into space without telling his two sons he might not make it back. If this were a fictional story, all of this would lead up to a massive breakdown and moment of catharsis for both the characters and the audience, but “First Man” is based on a true story. In real life, catharsis doesn’t always happen.
Though I can’t fault the man for his coping strategy, it’s a near-fatal flaw for a movie. A book could give us paragraphs of thought, but here we only have Gosling’s acting to help us connect to the main character of the movie. He wields his patented wounded stare and too-raw voice like they were knives at a hibachi restaurant, painting both deep pain and glimmers of humor across the facts of Armstrong’s life.
Gosling comes tantalizingly close to letting us understand the man he’s portraying, but the movie doesn’t help him out in the slightest. Screenwriter Josh Singer and director Damien Chazelle deny us desperately needed context for some of Armstrong’s long stretches of silence, and/or really any understanding as to how Armstrong’s marriage to his wife Janet really worked. We’re shown glimpses of goofiness, of a sweetness that would go a long way to explaining so many things, but it’s so disconnected from everything else we see that it’s hard to believe.
In the end, “First Man” is less like a clickbait article and more like a story you heard from a friend of a friend. Memorable, but too far removed to ever really touch your heart.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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