A number of films at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival were let down by a strange phenomenon rarely encountered by Hollywood’s usual output: reality. Jason Reitman’s highly anticipated The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as disgraced 1980s presidential candidate Gary Hart, was reduced by an anticlimactic, but truthful, final third. Beautiful Boy too, the tale of young drug addiction with Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrel, concludes on an optimistic, if dull, note: life goes on.
Josh Singer, the young writer of “Spotlight” and now Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man”, generally averts the fate of boring truth incurred by the above films but, much like Apollo 11, it’s a close one. Though First Man proves a now characteristic spectacle from Chazelle, Ryan Gosling is an odd choice for Armstrong, and he brings to the role a performance odder still. Shaking off the boyish charm that made his early career – and I can only assume this is intentional – he brings a tablespoon too little seasoning to an already herbivore role.
Neil Armstrong was, it seems, quite the ordinary father for a 1960s American family; few fireworks, fewer interesting conversations. Armstrong spends most of the film scowling and looking intensely, much like Tom Hardy’s near-faceless RAF pilot in “Dunkirk”. For a medium-sized role in an ensemble piece that can pass; we can expect more from a leading man in a film, as is this, of such scale.
Though Gosling and Singer may both be in line for some blame, the standout performances in First Man are Clare Foy as Janet Shearon, Neil’s wife, and Damien Chazelle as director. Foy does righteous indignation better than anyone else in Hollywood; Chazelle does most things better than anyone else in Hollywood. The first three minutes of First Man are one hell of an opening number and, like “La La Land’s” ‘Another Day of Sun’, only a preview of what’s to come. The visceral, warlike sequences of the NASA team wrestling with their primitive apparatus – and math – almost single-handedly elevate this to a truly memorable film. They are scenes for which Nolan and, dare I say, Spielberg would be proud.
For such as well-known story, Chazelle does remarkably well in convincing us that Neil Armstrong and NASA might not pull this one off. And if that’s the central challenge of this film, First Man lands it comfortably.