In life we are the sum total of all our experiences large and small, but in the movies there’s usually just one big tragedy motivating everything thereafter. Biopics tend to rely on this kind of pop-Freudian shorthand, often inventing phony moments of “closure” to tidy up messy, complicated lives into easily digestible two-hour-and-20-minute packages for Academy Award consideration. This approach typically wins a ton of Oscars but is largely antithetical to great art — after all, wasn’t the whole point of “Citizen Kane” that “Rosebud” didn’t explain anything?
According to Neil Armstrong’s widow Janet, the first man on the moon didn’t like to talk about his daughter Karen — a toddler who died of a brain tumor shortly before the brilliant engineer and test pilot was invited to join NASA’s Gemini program in the early 1960s. One shudders to think what the famously private Armstrong — whose stiff, Midwestern professionalism and disdain for the spotlight wrongly earned him a rap as a recluse in his later years — would make of “First Man,” as director Damien Chazelle’s thunderously one-note biopic never shuts up about her.
“Ryan Gosling goes to outer space because he doesn’t want to have feelings,” a dear friend texted me shortly after his screening let out and I’m sorry but you’re not gonna find a pithier plot synopsis. Working from a script by “Spotlight” scribe Josh Singer, Chazelle presents one giant leap for mankind as Armstrong’s escape from Earthly emotions, diminishing one of humanity’s most astonishing accomplishments as the semi-suicidal refuge of a broken man who refuses to grieve. “First Man” is a dour, unpleasant film wallowing in a masochistic self-abnegation similar to the director’s 2014 music school psychodrama “Whiplash,” except banging on astrophysics instead of drums.
An obviously gifted filmmaker who might someday make something I enjoy if he ever learns how to relax a little bit, Chazelle favors bold formal choices that can’t stop calling attention to themselves. As in the strenuously whimsical “La La Land,” his movies really show their work. And so “First Man” attempts to mimic Armstrong’s emotional myopia by having cinematographer Linus Sandgren shoot at least 80 percent of the picture in jittery, hand-held closeups on a grainy, 16mm stock largely underexposed and drained of color. It’s film of drab living rooms and dull offices, with an enormously overqualified supporting cast — including Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham and Jason Clarke — blending together in the background as Gosling’s sullen suffering sits front and center.
Obviously space exploration is serious business but I doubt it was ever as glum as the funereal “First Man,” which among the ranks of NASA movies is sorely lacking the jaunty exhilaration of Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” or the can-do camaraderie of Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” This trip beyond the stars is a largely internal journey as Armstrong is constantly haunted by flashbacks of his dead daughter, presented with the ethereal, roving camera and dusty Texas settings of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” — a movie that has arguably inspired more sorry imitations than any since “Pulp Fiction” and whose influence should be mothballed for a decade or so, if only for variety’s sake.
Ryan Gosling is such a funny, playful actor it always feels like a waste of resources when he gets stuck playing stoics. (Someday Gosling’s kamikaze turn as a drunken detective in 2016’s “The Nice Guys” will be properly recognized as one of the classic comic performances of our era.) He’s a strong enough screen presence to find a few interesting frissons in Armstrong’s somber reticence, but 141 minutes is an awful long time to spend in such gloomy company.
The only other performer punching through hard enough to make an impression is Corey Stoll, who plays Buzz Aldrin as such a self-infatuated bloviator you’ll wish the movie had given he and Gosling more chances to bump up against one another. It’s a relief to see some personality here, however obnoxious. Claire Foy earns above-the-title billing as the long-suffering Janet Armstrong, but she’s saddled with the same old naggy, stick-in-the-mud wife role we’ve seen in a thousand Great Man biopics.
Chazelle’s commitment to claustrophobia is effective in the early space travel sequences, the cramped camerawork viscerally conveying just how tiny those little capsules were, and the deafening sound design makes every creak of metal groan in the pit of your stomach. For the most part he limits our view to that of the astronauts’ — a sprawling cosmos glimpsed in pieces through small windows — which is gutsy choice but I’m not sure it’s a wise one. These scenes soon start to feel redundant, as there are only so many possible angles of Gosling flipping switches and turning knobs while the camera shakes and the soundtrack surges.
The film’s first real wide shots don’t arrive until we reach the moon (spoiler warning: they make it) where the cinematography switches from rough-and-tumble 16mm to sumptuous, 65mm IMAX — another “look at me” directorial decision — and the constant cacophony gives way to stunned silence. There is at long last a sense of genuine awe at the wonder of this miracle mission, which lasts for about 30 seconds before Chazelle cheapens it with a bit of pure Hollywood hokum borrowed from “Titanic.”
It’s one of those manufactured “closure” moments so gauche I actually gasped and found it impossible not to feel offended on Armstrong’s behalf, furious at seeing the legacy of this great pioneer who so fiercely protected his privacy smeared with such emotionally exploitative nonsense. “First Man” will probably be nominated for half-a-dozen Oscars. I left the theater fuming.