Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle ("La La Land") have created a portrait of a man who stands apart from his myth in their biopic about the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
“First Man” is a most intimate epic about a most private man.
The late Neil Armstrong was one of the most famous men in modern history, the first human to set foot on a world other than our own. He was a man of quiet willpower, great courage and extraordinary modesty. Those qualities are front and center in “First Man.”
The intimacy comes courtesy of director Damien Chazelle’s decision to film a great many of star Ryan Gosling’s scenes in tight close-up. Gosling’s face repeatedly fills the big screen, and we are left to look deeply into his eyes to try to divine what he is thinking and feeling.
Gosling, who previously worked with Chazelle on “La La Land,” is perfectly cast. Instead of portraying Armstrong as inscrutable and stoic, he reveals instead an individual who tightly manages his emotions and works hard to hide the effort that goes into such management.
There is, however, tenderness in his portrayal, manifested in the movie’s early scenes where he gently holds his toddler daughter and wordlessly strokes the child’s hair. She suffers from a fatal illness, and the sorrow over the loss of the little girl haunts Armstrong and stays with him right through to the climax of the picture.
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As he stands on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, looking up into the void of space, the swell of emotion surrounding that historic moment is infused with submerged grief. This is a man who has accomplished much, overcome much, but the ache is a key to his humanity. At that moment, there on the edge of a lunar crater, alone and enveloped in profound silence, he becomes iconic. History has claimed him. He is awestruck yet gripped by melancholy.
That melancholy is also reflected in “First Man’s” final scene that finds Armstrong alone with his wife, Janet, played by Claire Foy, after the mission. They regard each other in silence and reach out slowly to touch fingers. A small gesture, but one that is oh so human.
The quiet of that moment and the companion moment on the moon’s surface are in stark contrast to the many scenes of Armstrong flying various spacecraft: the X-15 space plane, the Gemini VIII capsule and the Apollo moon ship. Those scenes are clangorous (the sound design is very impressive), with bone-shaking rattles and mechanical grinding and rocket- engine roaring. Most of these spaceflight scenes are shot within the confines of the cockpits, which are claustrophobically confining. Armstrong and his fellow astronauts are packed in like sardines, and the sense of how incredibly dangerous this all is is overwhelming.
Foy’s performance is the counterpoint to Gosling’s. The character is loving but fierce, and chafes at playing a NASA stereotype: the demure astronaut wife. She angrily insists Neil tell his two young sons the truth about the possibility he may not survive the voyage to the moon. The scene where he struggles to find the words and the will to convey to his sons the hazards he faces is a crucial moment in the picture.
Based on James R. Hansen’s official 2005 biography of Armstrong (and made with the approval of Armstrong’s sons), the script by Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”) is a sensitively crafted blueprint for Chazelle’s direction. Together with Gosling, the three of them have created a portrait of a man who stands apart from his myth.
★★★★ “First Man,” with Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke. Directed by Damien Chazelle, from a screenplay by Josh Singer, based on a biography by James R. Hansen. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. Opens Oct. 12 at multiple theaters.