I for one admired Ryan Gosling‘s minimalist approach to playing Neil Armstrong in First Man. Armstrong, yes, was an allegedly dull and undemonstrative fellow, at least according to some, but in my eyes (and surely in the eyes of director Damien Chazelle) Gosling was conveying a complete emotive universe…all kinds of feeling, anxiety, ache and seasoned-pilot attitude, but with the tiniest and fleckiest of paint dabs.
I found it a fascinating and courageous performance because Gosling and Chazelle had made a conscious choice to not use the standard-issue emotional strategies that Ron Howard and others have resorted to in similar “solitary man vs. incredible challenge” dramas.
Obviously the ticket-buying public didn’t agree; ditto the industry when it came to handing out awards and acting nominations. File the Gosling-Chazelle experiment under “noble but unsuccessful.”
But another angle on this failure came to light when I read Owen Gleiberman‘s 1.24 review of Apollo 11, the CNN documentary that screened a few days ago at Sundance ’19.
“Even as a die-hard First Man believer, I have to say [that] while Ryan Gosling’s clean-cut, clear-eyed terseness matches up neatly with Neil Armstrong’s, the documentary confirms what I’d always remembered: that Armstrong’s face was frequently graced with the angelic hint of a smile — he was the Eagle Scout as Mona Lisa. Maybe he was just that way for the cameras, but I somehow doubt it.
“In Apollo 11, he comes off as genial and inviting, the very soul of a more optimistic America. I think if he’d come off that way a bit more in First Man, the movie might have won more fans.”