Damien Chazelle’s third film, First Man, is the story of NASA’s efforts to get to the moon – as seen, mostly, from the point of view of Neil Armstrong and his wife, Janet.
Deliberately paced and incredibly detailed, First Man takes on Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey from almost being washed out when he pilots an X-15 into bouncing of the Earth’s atmosphere – though he figures it out and lands safely.
In between scenes from NASA’s efforts – which give us looks at some famous names like Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) as the program shifts into high gear – we watch as the Armstrong family suffers a tragedy; the death of their daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford).
As NASA’s efforts ramp up, Armstrong becomes more and taciturn – leaving Janet (Claire Foy) frustrated and fearful.
By the time the moon mission has been set, she refuses to put up with her husband’s ducking his paternal obligations and forces him to tell their two sons that he might not come back.
Both Gosling and Foy give very controlled performances – each telling us more with the slightest movement of an eye than most could pull off with more movement.
That makes their few emotional outbursts twice as powerful.
First Man has a cast that is astoundingly good on every level – from Kyle Chandler’s Deke Slayton to Ciarán Hinds’ Robert Gilruth.
With a screenplay by Josh Singer (based on the book by James R. Hansen) and Linus Sandgren’ beautiful cinematography, Chazelle makes a film that works so well that, even though we know the history, we feel the tension of each test, each launch, as though we were seeing it for the first time.
First Man’s only real flaw is that the score, while very nicely done, generally, occasionally works way too hard – especially in the landing on the moon sequence.
That said, when the music peaks just as Armstrong is about to open the hatch – then stops dead, leaving complete silence as the hatch opens, – the effect is a truly special moment.
It would be easy to go on describing the (awesome) visual effects and the details inside the various space capsules (the astronauts almost all took some piece of home with them, for example), this is a film that must be seen.
We weren’t shown First Man in IMAX, but judging from what we saw, that should be a serious consideration.
First Man is a beautiful, mesmerizing film.
Final Grade: A+