First Man takes a triumphant first step telling the story of American astronaut Neil Armstrong and hits it with a spell of arthouse sensibilities and emotional undercurrent. Ryan Gosling is a fitting Armstrong, an exceedingly competent pilot, razor-sharp engineer, and unassuming Ohioan boy. He’s a figure of reserved strength and quiet calculation, a perfect match for Gosling’s strong, silent affectation. To his peers, Armstrong is a resilient commander, a man of rock-solid gumption and iron determination. To his family, Armstrong is an emotional astronaut. He’s a world away even on earth. And much like Neil Armstrong the American Hero, I respect the hell out of First Man but it’s a tough cookie to love.
Commissioning a long and arduous course – from the tragic death of his two-year-old daughter Karen to the tragic death of his pilot buddy to the tragic deaths of a group of his closet astronaut peers and neighbors – First Man climbs the piles of bodies Armstrong had to overlook to become a chapter-header in the annals of American history. The perils of piloting a vessel to outer-space in the 1960s were indeed no joke and the film from the Academy Award-winning La La Land and Whiplash director Damien Chazelle spells out the imminent danger Armstrong faced on a habitual basis, peeking under the sturdy iron curtain he erected between his professional life and inner turmoil like a nervous kid checking under unsuspecting dresses. It’s voyeuristic and intimate, a flurry of handheld shots pressed tight into the passenger’s most personal space.
Chazelle’s third feature is exceedingly well-made. The care for details is almost scientific, a craftsman quality gilding every angle of the historical biopic, from its transportive sound design to the POV style of its ignition sequences. By nature, First Man is a visual experience and Chazelle opts to nails us in the sarcophagus cockpit with Armstrong. Spinning. Shaking. Confined to his perspective, the footage is disorienting and severe. An alternative to the usual poetic ballet of space travel. Linus Sandgren’s (La La Land) minimalist cinematography heightens the isolation. A blaze of raging warning lights. Sharp daggers of sunshine. A lurking womb of unblinking darkness. Come awards season, First Man is sure to be adorned with special commendations for its spectacular sound editing and production, a cacophonous rattling of nuts and bolts, sure to shake seats and nerves. It’s just another reason that First Man demands a proper IMAX presentation, the creaks and moans of the otherworldly vessel an unnerving feat. As a thing of pure sound and sight, First Man rules. Take the moment when Chazelle finally pushes out of the landing module and the screen balloons to full IMAX size, nearly two full hours into the feature. Moments like this will undoubtedly seize your breath, the lunar portions an eye-popping jewel of cinematic showmanship at its most keenly perfected.
From Gosling to Claire Foy to Jason Clarke to Corey Stoll to Kyle Chandler, the performances across the board are sturdy, pocked with “Oh, there’s their Oscar-y moment” moments for its literal star-crossed leads but never quite luminous enough to summon much of an emotional reaction. All are strong. None are outstanding.
Rather, it’s Justin Hurwitz’s vital score that is the glue that binds – amplifying the tension in ingenious ways. As Armstrong attempts an inner-orbit docking test, an orchestral ballad tempers the danger; twisting this near-death experiment into a thing of classical beauty. Hurwitz’s liberal use of the musical saw (or singing saw), an ethereal ghost of sound, offers a Neutral Milk Hotel-esque spirit that haunts both Armstrong and the vacant-no-more moon.
Taken as a piece of writing, First Man avoids cradle-to-grave documentation while making perfunctory pitstops at the many critical milestones that made Armstrong Armstrong, though the biopic does suffer a feeling of being workmanlike, even overtly documentarian. Academy Award-winner Josh Singer’s (Spotlight, The Post) screenplay exists in a bit of a vacuum, the irony of tethering the emotion of this story to a man so emotionally distant, rarely out of mind. Singer overcorrects against sensationalization by turning the character into a slab of whispery monotony, always gazing away, a planet’s distance from his wife and family even under the same roof.
Like the chill of space, the result can be a bit cold to the touch. Until it is not. Attempts to illuminate Armstrong’s inner torment and angst are hit or miss, the picture making almost too strong a point of Armstrong’s emotional distancing from anyone and everyone. Gosling does all he can communicating volumes through his blue-grey old-soul eyes and labored breathing but the page requires an impossibly restrained presentation of emotion. His performance is rather serious, colorfully somber. The loss of his daughter, his peers, and his friends touching him in ways that he doesn’t want to reveal to any audience. His tears are shed in darkness. His tears are shed in space.
CONCLUSION: Taken as a whole, ‘First Man’ is an otherworldly hole-in-one, a technical moonshot marvel strapped to sturdy performances, confident direction, and unmatched technical marksmanship. It follows too many of the familiar biopic rules and can be a touch emotionally distant but when Damien Chazelle flexes his artistic muscles, ‘First Man’ flares as bright as a sunrise in space.