*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Damien Chazelle
STARS Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy
It’s immediately clear that Ryan Gosling possesses the right stuff when it comes to bringing astronaut Neil Armstrong to life in First Man, but it’s not readily apparent that Damien Chazelle adopts the right approach in dramatizing the events surrounding the saga of the first man on the moon.
Rather than present us with a larger-than-life hero – something America desperately could use right about now – Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, and Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning writer of Spotlight (here adapting James R. Hansen’s book), have instead played up Armstrong’s human dimensions, showing how the devastating loss of his little girl to a brain tumor has informed his frequently distant detachment from his wife (Claire Foy) and their young sons. Even when he’s in his own home, Neil seems to be a million miles away, a designation that makes him an ideal astronaut but a problematic husband and father.
Initially, the glumness of the characters ends up affecting the overall project: Reaching the moon remains one of this nation’s most remarkable achievements, but the movie largely keeps its emotions in check, tackling the tale in the most workmanlike manner possible and reluctant to allow the camera to stray far from Gosling’s sad, soulful eyes. Naturally, this approach has led to some nitwits on the right complaining about the notable absence of overt jingoism (only an orange baboon would whine about the idiotic flag controversy; oh, wait, one did) and some nitwits on the left complaining about the movie’s intense focus on a white male. But First Man isn’t a political movie — instead, it’s ultimately revealed to be a deeply humanistic one. The chilly demeanor present throughout much of the picture eventually lifts like a fog, and the final stretch of the film — the actual Apollo 11 mission — is a marvel of tone and technique, with Chazelle taking away our collective breath through absolute immersion into the experience. Chazelle’s approach might keep emotions grounded longer than necessary, but First Man nevertheless takes flight when it matters most.