Neil Armstrong casts long shadows across both the moon and human history in the biopic First Man (★★★), directed by Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land. Taking off from James R. Hansen’s book, published in 2005, Chazelle’s film hones in on the thrilling decade of exploration and sacrifice that culminated in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon. But, despite a breathtaking opening scene of Armstrong piloting an X-15 up to an altitude of 140,000-feet, thrills don’t seem to be what Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer are chasing.
In charting NASA’s space race, First Man weighs heavily the human toll that’s paid by the astronauts and their families. Accordingly, the movie presents a thoughtful account of Armstrong as a stoic maverick, utterly down-to-earth in how he goes about his duties as pilot, engineer, husband, and father. This seriousness of intent is echoed through star Ryan Gosling’s restrained performance as the unflappable midwesterner.
Beyond a somewhat adorable single-mindedness about math and mission engineering, Gosling’s Armstrong doesn’t exhibit much personality. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by a vibrant cast of fellow space pioneers, including Corey Stoll as Apollo 11 pilot Buzz Aldrin. And, providing a welcome counterpoint to all the buzzcuts and bravado, Claire Foy turns in an incandescent performance as Armstrong’s devoted wife Janet.
Janet, and Foy’s steely take on her, dominates one of the film’s two scenes that are memorably thrilling. In the first, a scene that probably will follow Foy’s introduction as a nominee at next year’s Academy Awards, Janet insists that her husband step out of his stoic comfort zone to give their children a proper farewell before he boards a rocket to the moon. They have already seen other astronauts make the ultimate sacrifice — Janet wants her sons to know that their father might not come home from Apollo 11, and she wants Neil to be the one to tell them. Janet’s plea to Armstrong, and her wish for his safe return, sums up the love and commitment of thousands of families who send their loved ones off for service.
The second scene that might be signature for Chazelle’s approach to storytelling in First Man is perfectly minimal in its emotion and detail. In a pre-Apollo training mission, Armstrong rockets towards space, with the entire flight shot from his strapped-in position inside the cramped craft. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren strap the audience in for the astronauts’ unbelievably limited field of vision: a mere tiny porthole outside of which the visible patch of sky goes from blue to white to the black of space. They called them pilots, but they really were just men hurtling miles above earth at the mercy of math and science.
First Man is rated R, and opens in theaters everywhere October 12. Visit fandango.com.
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