First Man underperformed at the box office, and I think that this is largely because the lousy title tells us nothing about the movie. Maybe the publicity was also bad because nobody I know has heard of the film. The title comes from the book that the movie is based upon, First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, but when I hear "First Man" I think of a different movie ...
So it would have been better to call this movie "Neil Armstrong" or just "Neil" for clarity. It is about Neil Armstrong's role in the space program, and how this affected his life and his relationship with his family.
The film has been called a worthy successor to the movie The Right Stuff, which is only partially true. I don't think that the two movies are in the same league. The Right Stuff is a great movie and an ensemble piece about many people. What First Man does well is tell us the events that led up to Neil Armstrong being the first man to step onto the moon. It has more of a gritty realism to it. Never has spaceflight seemed so claustrophobic nor so dangerous.
Family is at the emotional center of the film. One of my favorite scenes is where Armstrong explains to his two boys that there is a slight chance that he might not be coming back from his mission to the moon. I thought that maybe this scene was fictional, but it turns out that it actually happened. His younger son is maybe too young to understand, but the older boy accepts that it is necessary for heroes to take risk.
Neil Armstrong rightfully earned a reputation for having nerves of steel. He escaped a couple of life-threatening situations by doing the right thing just in the nick of time. He was the strong silent type. He was always professional and smart. But you can see from interviews that Armstrong could also be friendly and pleasant. The trouble with Ryan Gosling is that in all his movies he appears to have one mood, which is brooding. Gosling is the silent and brooding type. I don't feel like he completely captures Neil Armstrong, nor do I think that he was the best actor for the part. I think that Josh Brolin could have done a better job.
The movie lacks detail but instead chooses to make big jumps between key emotional and historic moments. It tries to show us, and not tell us what happened, but a little more explanation would have clarified what was going on.
Still, the pacing of the film is very good. It keeps us interested from start to finish.
Rating: B+. It makes a great rental.
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