Review: 'First Man'

Damien Chazelle shoots for the moon and hits his mark with Neil Armstrong biopic
Thrilling evocation of the first lunar landing.

Col. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was once described by newsman Walter Cronkite as "enigmatic." That was generous. During that year of flamboyance, 1969, Armstrong was often considered a colorless Ohio Protestant blank.

As seen in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (adapted into Phil Kaufman's 1983 film) the military worked to keep the astronauts seemingly free of personalities, tamping down controversies and downplaying the danger.

In his first thoroughly good movie, First Man director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) compresses seven years in Armstrong's life—from testing the hypersonic aircraft X-15 to the actual moment of setting foot on the lunar dust—into a little over two hours.

It's tremendously exciting filmmaking. Here Chazelle is more of a disciple of Steven Soderbergh than Ron Howard. Rather than taking in the vastness of space, Chazelle's focus narrows to the view through a space capsule window. He makes it all frightening: the glow of hot metal, the rows of toggle switches, the seams of the capsule that look thin enough to split. Chazelle re-creates the excitement of breaching the atmosphere after a bone-shaking ride and finally emerging into stillness. It's all caught with little gestures: the snatching of a floating pencil in zero gravity, or the slap of a bare hand against the window, as a terrific spin almost whirls the Gemini capsule into oblivion.

The casting of Ryan Gosling as Armstrong turns out to be inspired. In Drive, Gosling's version of cool had become almost a parody. Here his minimalism and covertness is used perfectly to portray a man who could certainly be remote. The well-worn key Chazelle uses to open Armstrong is perhaps too easy—the idea that the astronaut has an impregnable hurt-locker in which he keeps the sorrow of the death of his baby daughter. But Claire Foy, as Armstrong's wife Janet, indicates that their marriage could also be a rocky ride. Most married men wouldn't go to the moon without their wife's blessing, and Janet has grounds for her simmering anger as her husband walls himself off.

Foy takes what's usually the dullest kind of role—the wife who waits—and makes this Janet strong and fascinating. Her share of bravery is depicted against evocative re-creations of the scale and look of suburban 1960s America. Her own ill-fitting mask of calm starts crumbling as the stakes get higher, and after they lose good friends in the Apollo 8 tragedy. Any time the astronauts are escorted up a gantry and into the capsule, white-suited workers stand at attention, waiting. It has the air of a public execution.

What's at stake may be obvious, but Chazelle makes it subtle, with the figures at Mission Control (including Kyle Chandler's excellent Deke Slayton) poring over the recently declassified statement meant to be read to the public if the first moon voyagers were killed or stranded. There was a protocol: "The president will first call the widows-to-be..." That chilling phrase gives a fresh imagining of what could have happened.

First Man finds dark humor in Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll): "I'm just saying what everyone's thinking."

"Maybe you shouldn't do that," Armstrong says quietly. History is a river, and those pulled by its currents are often too busy swimming for their lives to take the long view of what happens on the banks. Chazelle downplays politics and doesn't mention Nixon, but he tries for a reverse angle on the heroism. He excerpts an interview with Kurt Vonnegut saying that the NASA money would be better spent making NYC habitable. At a Florida launch sight protest, an actor recites Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon," a year before it was actually recorded. Scott-Heron's opinion was both necessary and witty, but it stays a sidebar, like the five-second glimpse of the Vietnam War on a TV.

Anyway, it was only after NASA repeated the missions that some moon fatigue set in. In Superman (1979) when astronauts are in need of rescue, a commentator mutters, "Are they still up there?" First Man isn't a session of hero worship, but it does help one understand the otherness of Neil Armstrong, the seeming nervelessness that still exemplifies bravery in this age of scoundrels.

First Man
PG-13, 141 Mins.

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