Review: 'First Man' shoots for stars, comes up short

Ryan Gosling is Neil Armstrong in this technically dazzling but emotionally stiff tale of man's journey to the moon

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Ryan Gosling in "First Man."

There's a lot of technical wizardry on display in "First Man," but on an emotional level, it's as cold as the other side of the moon. 

Sure, Neil Armstrong was a famously dry, spotlight-averting hero, and "First Man" attempts to explain his preference for science and math to the messy reality of human feelings. But it makes for a stiff, monotone exercise that never reaches the stars. 

Damien Chazelle, the whiz-kid director of the pulse-pounding "Whiplash" and the intoxicating "La La Land," successfully puts viewers in the cockpit with Armstrong as he heads for the moon. He uses handheld cameras to replicate the sensation of rattling around in a tin can while hurtling through the sky and he creates a tense, cramped atmosphere. 

But the script, written by Josh Singer and based on James R. Hansen's "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," can't get all the way inside Armstrong's head, and it's the human element that's lacking as the story builds toward that small step for man and giant leap for mankind. 

Armstrong, played by an emotionally restrained Ryan Gosling, lost a daughter to a brain tumor in the early 1960s. That incident frames the story, as Armstrong hallucinates visions of his daughter and is permanently haunted by her death.  

Claire Foy plays Armstrong's wife, Janet, and she's largely stuck at home, worrying about Armstrong. Of Armstrong's fellow astronauts, many of whom gave their lives to the various missions that led to the moon landing, Corey Stall's blunt, brutish Buzz Aldrin makes the most lasting impression. 

Chazelle spends a lot of time focusing tightly on Armstrong's eyes as he gazes at the moon, from the earth and while on his way to the big rock. You see what he sees, and where he's ultimately headed.  

Yet "First Man" never quite connects at a gut level. For a story that shoots for the moon, it has trouble leaving the ground.


'First Man'


Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language

Running time: 141 minutes