The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” President John F. Kennedy said in his famous September 12, 1962 “Moon Speech,” a portion of which features into the post-lunar landing montage in First Man.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
This is an argument that’s as sound for making a big-budget, A-list historical biopic in 2018 as it is for space programs in the ‘60s. Why does an winner adapt James R. Hansen’s book about Neil Armstrong into a screenplay? Why does wunderkind director Damien Chazelle step away from his musical influences to tackle something so different in tone — and arguably even more challenging to film than a dance number in the middle of a freeway? Why would formidable talents like Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy sign on to play the first man on the moon and his wife, Janet, respectively? For the challenge. For the application of some of Hollywood’s best talent. For the glory.
In that context, First Man is certainly, much like the Apollo 11 mission itself, an impressive feat, an incredible collaboration between some of the finest creative and technical minds in their industry. It’s well-translated from the page, a thoughtful, slow-burning take on an impossibly well-known story that keeps audiences engaged, even though the ending was spoiled long before many of us were even born. The acting is every bit as sound and nuanced as you’d expect from consistent heavyweights like Gosling and Foy. (Corey Stoll’s brash Buzz Aldrin also brings a welcome touch of comic relief, without reducing the second man on the moon to a punchline or sidekick comic fodder.) The way that Chazelle films the inside of a cockpit (claustrophobic, sensorily overwhelming, fraught with potential danger) and space (stark, haunting, stunning) are both testaments to what’s possible with the latest advancements in technology and vision in filmmaking.
That said, it’s hard not to wonder why this particular film, as well-crafted as it is, was made now. It’s not that Neil Armstrong doesn’t deserve a high-caliber biopic. It’s not even that First Man is a run-of-the-mill Hollywood profile in courage. Armstrong’s stoicism, for example, is treated as one facet of a complete, complicated human being, as opposed to the defining hallmark of a one-dimensional American hero. Foy is given more to work with as Janet than most supporting0role wives have enjoyed in the genre, which is at least a small step for female characters in big films inspired by true stories about men. (Although a thoughtful reflection on what it means and feels like to be the wife of an astronaut does fall short of — I’m so sorry — being a giant leap for womankind on onscreen.)
By the time that protests against the money being put into the space program are portrayed as something between background noise and antagonism, though, it’s clear that First Man is, at its core, very much a traditional paean to American excellence and glory. (This makes the brewing “scandal” surrounding the lack of a planted American flag in the film particularly bizarre; First Man is so laden with Americana that such a scene would have been downright redundant.) This isn’t a celebration of underappreciated heroes from history like Hidden Figures, nor is it a narrative that uses historical events to create a commentary or allegory on modern times. It’s a story about already well-known public figures and events that, no matter how well it is told, is still being told in almost the same way that it always has been. This leaves First Man about as far removed from the zeitgeist as we are from the time period that it portrays.
At a time where everything from fairly serious documentaries like Fahrenheit 11/9 to provocations like Assassination Nation are at least starting to grapple with the concept of America as something other than the greatest, freest, and most accomplished nation on Earth, a film like First Man begins to feel like a failure to read the room at best. It is, again, not a bad film by any means, but if you happen to be someone who believes that art doesn’t — or shouldn’t — exist in a vacuum, the purpose of a film like this at a time like this is at least something that should inspire some questions. Why do we flock to films like First Man? What do we still need from them? What do they say to us? And what does that say about us?