Movies have made sure that we remember the achievements of the U.S. space program, thanks to such films as “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff.” As the title suggests, “First Man” concentrates on one astronaut – and in particular, the accomplishment that made sure he would be a part of history forever: Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon.
The picture reteams Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle after the huge success they had with “La La Land,” and they proved to be as skilled as partners in this genre as they were in a musical. What’s especially impressive here are the flight sequences, which are as realistic as any have been on the screen … and that even accounts for the things that seem to go wrong, though known fact has established that Armstrong survived all his missions.
(It probably goes without saying that, given the dimensions of space capsules and simulators, claustrophobes may want to avoid this film.)
Those hair-raising moments are the highlights of “First Man,” but Gosling also is very credible in the quieter biographical scenes, playing Armstrong who wasn’t always entirely comfortable in the spotlight if at all. The actor’s quiet, edgy intensity works quite well for him here – and if you look at footage of the actual Armstrong, you see that their public images match up favorably. The impression is that a lot of deep stuff is running beneath those supposedly still waters.
And for Armstrong, it was, particularly in family terms. Personal tragedy made him painfully aware of the fragility of life, and recent Emmy winner Claire Foy (“The Crown”) also is fine in “First Man” as the spaceman’s wife, who shares the fears of those married to others in dangerous occupations – especially since she knew that in its early stages, NASA literally was flying by the seat of its pants.
The busy-ness of the space administration during missions is another element of “First Man” that Chazelle gets right. The energy and the anxiety of officials and technicians are conveyed appropriately, to the degree where strange terminology should feel to most viewers like a second, naturally acquired language.
Though it’s ultimately unable to resist the temptation to be a touch on the lengthy side, “First Man” is everything you could want it to be for the story it tells, and from several angles. It’s absolutely worth a trip to the theater, if not necessarily to the cosmos.