Heading into a theater to see First Man, a subtle, poetic, nerve-racking glimpse into a few years in the life of first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, you wouldn't expect it to be about the consequences of death and inconsolable grief. But, even for all it's jaw-dropping, immersive, claustrophobic space-flight sequences, it is. And it’s devastating.
These flights, and Singer’s screenplay built around them, aren’t celebrations of the awe-inspiring streamlined beauty of 1960s flying machines, or their undisputed technical marvels, or cutting-edge NASA technology. Nor does the movie rely on surface-level, feel-good, flag-waving patriotism or heroic mythologizing as did, say, Apollo 13. It's about ordinary Americans reaching for the seemingly impossible—and, despite the human costs, scoring astonishing achievements in rocket ships crammed with spinning dials, levers, equipment that doesn’t always work. When a piece of equipment falters immediately pre-flight, a NASA technician actually asks if anyone has a Swiss Army knife handy.
Chazelle directs the intimate epic like a seasoned veteran. He and the screenwriter never forget to place the movie in a specific time and context, with poignant references to Pres. Kennedy; the element of macho in the "Space Race" competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; the divisive Vietnam War; and the racial turbulence of the times, conveyed by superb use of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Chazelle has also made brilliant use of first-rate collaborators including cinematographer Linus Sandgren (those averse to shaky cam: beware), production designer Nathan Crowley, composer Justin Hurwitz, editor Tom Cross and, especially, sound designer Ai-Ling Lee and a cadre of sound experts.
Ryan Gosling is canny in letting us feel the wells of emotion he’s tamping down, rather than playing to the cheap seats.
That may cost the movie—some call it chilly and remote—a wider audience, but it makes for a grittier, realer experience. Foy, a powerhouse, makes a lot out of a little, and the supporting players make rock-solid contributions, notably Corey Stoll (as cocky Buzz Aldrin), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Pablo Schreiber (Jim Lovell), Jason Clarke (Edward Higgins White), Lukas Haas (Mike Collins), Patrick Fugit (Elliot See) and Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom. In case you're wondering, the moon-landing finale is a full-on knockout, technically and emotionally. It may not feature a flag-planting, but it goes for the jugular in subtle, powerful ways.
- Ryan Gosling and the rest of the cast are perfect in the thrilling and unexpectedly fresh and emotional tale
- The title character might be a bit tough to warm up to for some viewers