4 stars (out of 4)
Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. An American hero that risked his life to push space exploration into a new frontier. His tale of triumph and tragedy will be read in history books forever. So any big screen biography will surely be a vast, feel-good chest-thumper punctuated with grandiose speeches, right? And don’t forget the swelling orchestral music once he lands on the moon in 1969 and speaks the immortal line, “That’s one small leap for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
First Man is not that movie. It’s an understated and sobering drama that is light years beyond a typical biopic. Armstrong rarely speaks. Chunks of his life story, including his entire childhood, have been jettisoned. He and his fellow astronauts aren’t gung-ho, square-jawed Ken dolls — they’re nearly all depicted as anonymous workers blithely unemotional about the safety of their jobs. (Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry and Christopher Abbott are all allegedly in the cast.) And yet, despite its remarkably restrained tone, this is an extraordinary film that you will not soon forget. It will shake you to your core and leave you gasping. You will likely wipe away a few tears as well.
This is the impressive work of Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning directing wunderkind behind Whiplash and La La Land. His singing and dancing leading man Ryan Gosling takes the title role here, returning to the stone-faced and deadpan Ryan Gosling we’ve all known and loved for the past 15 years. As Armstrong, the man always keeps his emotions in check, whether he’s hurtling a jet in and out of the space’s atmosphere or playing with his young sons. He and his wife (The Crown’s Claire Foy in a limited role) are college sweethearts but aren’t overt about their love. The notable — and heartbreaking — exception occurs during a tender moment after his toddler daughter Karen dies of cancer. Do not underestimate the bond between a father and his baby girl.
This gritty, cool-headed attitude enables Armstrong to be a rising superstar in NASA’s lunar program. He’s the first to test out a spinning flight simulator. And though his quickly passes out, he immediately requests another turn. (The sight of all the astronauts sitting in a classroom with stained vomit on their shirts provides rare comic relief.) Starting in the early 1960s, he rises through the ranks with the utmost respect of his peers. Before his iconic Apollo 11 mission, he also docked two spaceships in orbit.
His feats aren’t portrayed with the rah-rah fanfare seen in Apollo 13 or From the Earth to the Moon. Chazelle, whose films illustrate the life sacrifices that people make to pursue their passions, underlines the fact that space exploration was a dangerous and decidedly unglamorous business. You don’t get the majestic, gee-whiz exterior visual of a shuttle flying through the blackness of space. Instead, he puts you right in the cockpit. Buckle up. Armstrong and his peers are crammed into tiny spaces, surrounded by metal wires and navigational instruments constantly fluctuating. You get extreme close-ups of Gosling’s face even as he somersaults in space, hovering perilously close to death. The sounds in orbit veers from deafening noise to abrupt silences. There’s not a second to spare just to catch a breath.
Though Armstrong survives his most harrowing brush with death, several of his friends are not as fortunate. Only mafia families hold more funerals. Yet the grief is never poured on for sentimental reasons. Death is merely a part of the job, like sleepless nights are for a medical intern and bad posture is for a writer sitting at a laptop.
By the time Armstrong is selected to take on the Apollo 11 mission along with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll in a standout role) and pilot Michael Collins (Lukas Haas), he’s not just the steeliest astronaut in the program, he’s one of the few contenders still alive. The mission is so formidable that the astronauts’ NASA boss (Kyle Chandler) signs off on the obituaries before they board. No matter that it’s a given Armstrong lands the eagle and gets to moonwalk — the crackling suspense is almost unbearable. It’s a special director that keeps you white-knuckled about the outcome of one of the most well-documented days in human history.
(As for those complaints that the film is un-American because Armstrong is not shown planting a flag on the surface of the crater? Total Hogwash. It’s there, trust me. In fact, the stars and stripes are seen throughout the picture. And we do hear audio clips of President John F. Kennedy’s fiery desire for Americans to go to the moon.)
First Man does not revolve around the successful mission anyway. Nor does it shine a light on the soul of a man that rarely opened himself up to the public. The lack of character development is liable to frustrate some people hoping for fresh insight to this enigmatic legend. But this film accomplishes something infinitely more meaningful: A deeply contemplative journey about unspoken courage and humility. And wow does it stick the landing.
First Man, which had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, opens in theaters on Friday, October 12.