Damien Chazelle's "First Man" fails to launch [TIFF]

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Neil Armstrong's story is put to the screen by director Damien Chazelle and scribe Josh Singer in "First Man" -- a mechanical, altogether flat attempt to recreate the events that led to Armstrong's historic trip to the moon.

The 33-year-old Chazelle, already known for his excellent work in "Whiplash" and "La La Land," stalls to find the same excitement and intensity in "First Man." Why? Because he is restrained by adapting the story of a man that, quite frankly, was just not that interesting to begin with. Sure, Armstrong was the first man on the moon and the film's final stretch, delving into that historic voyage to space, is incredibly shot and ultimately very moving -- however, the getting there is rather dull and consists of mostly trial and error efforts from Armstrong and his NASA crew to prepare for the lunar journey.

Throwing us into the cockpit with Armstrong (played with deadpan dullness here by Ryan Gosling), Chazelle uses shaky handheld camera and frenetic editing to try and envelop us into the cagey metal prototypes these brave men had to fit into during the grueling pre-mission tests.  At home, Armstrong and wife Janet (Claire Foy) mourn the loss of their baby girl to cancer, and Chazelle seems to indicate this gave Armstrong a fearlessness, and recklessness, to go on with the deadly mission at NASA. This tears his relationship with Janet and distances him from his two sons. 

Eventually Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) join the Apollo 11 mission, and, well, you know the rest. Singer (who won an Oscar for writing "Spotlight") adapts James R. Hansen's novel about Armstrong, but can't seem to find an enticing way to depict Armstrong, whom, by all accounts, was a rather boring individual.

If Chazelle found a stylistic visual palette for his first two films, the way he shoots "First Man," with a rather odd amalgam of handheld cameras, is clearly inspired by the cinema-verite movement that was booming around the time of Apollo 11. If his intent is to produce visceral realism, he fails. In fact, if there's any reason to watch this movie it's for Claire Foy's beautifully subtle performance as Armstrong's wife -- her beautiful buggy eyes tell a world of emotions in a single stare, Foy, known for her work as the Queen in "The Crown," is a star-in-the-making.

Chazelle's failure to launch "First Man" into orbit counts as a rather devastating disappointment for me. He just didn't choose right by tackling the Armstrong story, his talents should have been put to better use with more original concepts instead of adapting Hansen's by-the-books historical novel. It's only in the film's final stretch that you are reminded of how talented Chazelle actually is. A 20 minute journey to the moon, shot with IMAX cameras, captures the wonderment of a mission that changed the world. The famous words uttered by Armstrong -- "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." --- invoke a time period when anything felt possible, but for most of the film , unlike those moving final moments, you just don't feel like much is on the line. [C]