Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle reunites with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in First Man, an emotionally enthralling and sensorily spectacular account of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Moon landing.
Not only is this a fitting biopic for an American hero, it’s also an ode to the men and women who dared to do the impossible and made incredible sacrifices so that we could extend our reach in the universe. What’s distinctive about Chazelle’s vision of space travel is how he tethers the hopes and dreams of NASA’s brightest to the overwhelmingly dangerous operations necessary for Apollo 11’s success.
Opening in 1961 with a thrilling sequence in which Armstrong (Gosling) heads up an atmosphere-piercing flight test gone awry, we’re introduced to his wife Jan (Claire Foy) as the two are coping with the loss of their young daughter. Upon moving to Houston for a fresh start, Armstrong moves up the ranks at NASA and is soon involved in the Gemini program, during which critical tasks are mastered for use in the Apollo missions. With pressure mounting from the Space Race, Apollo 11 is carried out in the summer of 1969 with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) becoming the first two men to walk on the Moon.
As much as this is a film about the space program and the incredible amount of work that it took to get America to the Moon, it’s also an engaging personal story about the toll those efforts took on the people involved. Screenwriter Josh Singer balances the no-nonsense mechanics of the missions with intimate sequences of home life between Armstrong and his increasingly alienated family. Foy is particularly good portraying a wife wracked with anxiety over the new perils that face her husband with each new development in his profession. Gosling also turns out to be an excellent fit to play the titular character, stripping away his typical levels of charm to play an engineer whose head is always in his work.
In addition to casting Gosling again, Chazelle has also re-teamed with the technical leads from La La Land and achieves a similar level of success with them in this film. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz is tempered with a beautiful combination of worry and wonder, led by a mournful and spellbinding theremin that recalls sci-fi movies of the ’50s and ’60s. It took a little time for me to get on board with the look of the film, but cinematographer Linus Sandgren does find a rhythm after a few initial missteps to produce plenty of indelible images. But the MVP from a technical standpoint is editor Tom Cross, who won Best Editing for Chazelle’s Whiplash and does a stunning job of piecing together some extremely tense setpieces.
Of course it all comes back to the vision laid out by Chazelle. In keeping the action focused on the point-of-view of the astronauts as they’re crammed into their spacecrafts, he has created an experience that’s as claustrophobic and intense as any of its kind since Apollo 13. IMAX is becoming more of a gimmick than a necessity for most movies released these days, but seeing this film in IMAX is necessary not only for the enhanced picture, but for the dynamic sound design that accompanies it. First Man is a first-rate docudrama about the spirit of innovation that led to triumphs in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Coming to theaters this weekend:
Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer, is a direct sequel to the 1978 horror classic that finds serial killer Michael Myers escaping prison once again to wreak havoc during the titular holiday.
The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall, is an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas about a teenager whose life is shattered after her childhood friend is murdered by a police officer.
The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, is a Western dark comedy that follows a pair of assassins as they track down a notorious gold prospector (Jake Gyllenhaal) during the California Gold Rush.