by Hope Madden
We’ve seen a lot of movies about astronauts, loads of sometimes great films about the US space race and the fearlessness of those involved. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is something different.
Chazelle strips away the glamour and artifice, the bombast and spectacle usually associated with films of this nature. His vision is raw and visceral, often putting you in the moon boots of the lead, but never quite putting you inside his head.
The director’s La La Land lead Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this biopic of the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface. It’s another of Gosling’s impressive turns: reserved, with an early vulnerability that hardens over time to a protective stoicism.
A no-frills Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife Janet, and the characters the two actors carve share a bristly chemistry that adds to the film’s committed authenticity. It also provides some kind of emotional center for the story.
Chazelle’s observational, unhurried style doesn’t draw attention to the drama. There is nothing showy about this film. That understatement allows the most startling, horrifying and awe-inspiring moments their own power. The approach also quietly reminds you of the escalating pressures shouldered by Armstrong as he and NASA faced tragedy after tragedy in the name of space exploration.
Gosling shares screentime with an enormous and talented ensemble boasting many fine performances and just as many welcome surprises. Though most roles are very small, Shea Wigham, Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll stand out.
Stoll, playing a socially obtuse Buzz Aldrin, offers an enjoyable foil to Gosling’s composed Armstrong, sparking one of the film’s only real grins.
Though Gosling’s distant performance and Chazelle’s near-verite style mirror Armstrong’s increasingly walled-off psyche, it becomes difficult to connect with characters. First Man deposits you inside the action but keeps you at arm’s length from Neil Armstrong.
As gritty and unpolished as the film is, Chazelle never loses his sense of wonder. The jarring quiet, the stillness and vastness are captured with reverence and filmed beautifully.
Those images of silent awe are as stirring as anything you will see, but it’s the visceral, queasying and claustrophobic moments underscoring the death-defying commitment to the cause that will shake you up.