“First Man” revisits NASA’s space missions of the 1960s, with a focus on Neil Armstrong and his historic walk on the moon.
The taciturn Armstrong doesn’t make for a psychologically riveting protagonist. But director Damien Chazelle, who took the mentor-pupil drama and the romantic musical to new places in “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” here offers a striking, intimate and visceral astronaut story.
Written by Josh Singer and based on James R. Hansen’s book, the decade-spanning drama begins with a knockout sequence showing how Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) remains cool in a crisis. The craft he is test-piloting violently rattles, shakes and malfunctions. “Neil, you’re bouncing off the atmosphere,” states Mission Control. Characteristically, Armstrong returns home safely.
His lack of emotion proves problematic at home. Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), have lost their young daughter to a brain tumor. Janet never sees her restrained husband grieve.
Armstrong serves nobly and unflappably in the Gemini program and is selected to command the Apollo 11 mission. In 1969, he becomes the first man to walk on the moon.
En route to that achievement, Chazelle covers a range of space-program events, some scary and tragic, including the cabin fire that killed three Apollo 1 astronauts.
At home, stressed-out Janet insists that Armstrong tell their two young sons the truth: The lunar trip is dangerous; he may die.
Chazelle also includes 1960s news bites: John F. Kennedy, hoping to outdo the Soviets, extols the moon goal; detractors state that NASA funding should be used to fight poverty and racism.
As a character portrait, the film disappoints. Armstrong rarely displays or discusses his feelings; we don’t know what drives him. While Gosling’s dignified performance anchors the drama, it doesn’t reveal what’s inside the quiet hero. Chazelle’s attempts to fill in the blanks by attributing Armstrong’s lack of forthrightness to grief are unconvincing.
Still, by presenting the story largely through Armstrong’s eyes, Chazelle keeps us rapt. In frequent close-ups, Gosling conveys hints of wonder in Armstrong’s eyes, particularly when looks at the earth from the moon.
There’s also substantial suspense, enhanced by the production design. The claustrophobic spacecraft suggests oversized tin cans in which disaster could likely occur.
The story ends conventionally but effectively with the moon landing, and it’s spellbinding. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s switch to a 65mm IMAX format conveys the vastness of the lunar landscape. The sight of Armstrong stepping onto the moon’s powdery soil and then recognizing the significance of his footprint is unforgettable. Chazelle’s use of silence is exquisite.
Chazelle also shows how risky the moon missions were. The Apollo 11 triumph, he makes clear, couldn’t have happened without the sacrifices of Armstrong’s predecessors. Notable as Gemini and Apollo astronauts are Kyle Chandler as flight-operations director Deke Slayton; Jason Clarke as Ed White and Corey Stoll as a showboaty Buzz Aldrin.
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll
Written by: Josh Singer
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes