Josh Singer (Book: James R. Hansen)
Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Scott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg
PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
A crisp, technically proficient telling of the American moon landing that ignited a generation’s imagination and propelled U.S. scientific advancements into the following decades. First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land, the multiple Oscar-winning musical that famously lost to Moonlight in Best Picture.
La La Land star Ryan Gosling takes the role of American icon Neil Armstrong with a stoic performance as a father whose history of loss leads to his emotional detachment, a brave interpretation that won’t come across nearly as sympathetic as some audiences would want, but which feels fitting for the situation.
The film explores the years leading up to the Apollo 11 space mission that put Armstrong, Michael Collins (Lukas Haas), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) on the moon. Never looking the other way as one tragedy befalls the mission after another, Armstrong’s external wall builds higher until he risks his own suitably for the Apollo mission.
As his put-upon wife, Claire Foy gets little material to work with, but makes the most of it. She has a pair of potent scenes, but otherwise melts into the background giving the film the ability to focus less on Armstrong’s home life and more on the mission itself. The film conveys Armstrong’s disconnectedness through his devotion to work and refusal to acknowledge to his family the potential risks of the mission.
Only Stoll among the remaining actors stands out in the film and that’s because of his brash egocentrism, a quality Stoll seems to have mastered conveying over the years. The cast is strong in general, but not outwardly impressive.
Chazelle’s appreciation for this part of history is evidenced in the intense level of detail he puts into every shot, a mesmerizing portrait of the space race and all its faults. Whether it’s the riveting details of rocket engines decoupling, the intense inside view of the blast-off zone, or the use of silence and noise to build tension in the audience. A better reliance on science to fuel the story than on excess, Chazelle’s film feels more like a historical document than a piece of pulp entertainment.
There was some controversy upon the film’s festival premiere at Telluride. Audiences were angered at how the American flag was not showcased in the scenes on the moon. Ignoring that one moment, the rest of the film is incredibly patriotic and is a more compelling look at the space race from a historical perspective. While audiences might not appreciate the lack of specificity, that does not undo its significance. A firm future place in American school classrooms should be its legacy.
While we’ve seen similar narratives about the space program, most notably the superb The Right Stuff, First Man carves out its niche in history as another impressive, detailed, and engaging look at the backrooms of NASA and the space race’s costly, but ultimately important work.
April 22, 2019