Absorbing, gripping, and altogether magnificent, First Man is a mighty achievement, a ‘coming of space age’ story about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his personal journey during the 1960s, leading him to step foot on the moon.
Admittedly, I’ve always been drawn to tales of outer space, both fictional and narrative, dating back to my own childhood in the 1960s and early 70s, when I dreamed of following the astronauts into space and exploring the stars. Those dreams were shattered when the Apollo program concluded in 1972.
Nonetheless, my space dreams were rekindled by seeing Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), based on Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction tome about test pilots and the men selected to be astronauts for Project Mercury. First Man plays like a spiritual sequel to the earlier film, based on James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
First published in 2005, Hansen’s book is an official biography of Armstrong’s life. The script for First Man, credited to Academy Award-winner Josh Singer (Spotlight), starts with Armstrong as a test pilot, aged 32 or so. He is cool and somewhat distant, a quiet man who always remains focused on the task at hand.
Ryan Gosling embodies that description of Armstrong perfectly. Gosling himself has often been cool and distant in his screen portrayals, preferring to underplay his roles with an apparent sense of detachment. At least in this film, that fits Armstrong exactly: he is a family man, yes; married with children, yes; but also a man who was born in 1930, growing up in very difficult economic times and serving in the military as a young man during wartime.
Neil Armstrong is calm and steady, a solid and reliable man, qualities that attracted his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), while they were in college together. Whatever fire Neil lacks in his outward expressions, Janet is more than capable of stirring those emotions. Of course, she too is a product of her time; she is always supportive of her husband, and always does what he says to do, but she is fully capable of letting him know about her own feelings.
Their children reflect this as well: their boys are playful but also obedient and respectful. Sadly, the Armstrongs lost a young daughter as well, which happens in the very early portion of the film, and adds an additional weight to Neil Armstrong’s bearing in life.
As the Mercury Project is coming to a close, Neil applies for the Gemini Program to become an astronaut; it fits his plans and goals. Janet considers it an opportunity to start over again after the tragic loss of their daughter.
First Man moves forward gently and resolutely from there. For those of us who are familiar with the space program and its history, the tragedies and triumphs will be familiar. What makes them ring true in these recreations, some purely dramatic and others prosaic, is the attention to detail and the time allowed for their relative import to sink in thoroughly.
Gosling and Foy nimbly provide ballast for the adventures in space. The supporting cast includes a number of my personal favorites — Pablo Schreiber, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Kyle Chandler — who are all focused on their own characters and not on showboating, which seems to reflect the ethos of the people involved. Olivia Hamilton fares well as Pat White, who lives across the street from the Armstrongs with her husband Ed (Clarke) and their children.
Damien Chazelle, who wrote the wicked thriller Grand Piano (2013) before making his directorial debut with Whiplash (2014), almost makes one forget that he subsequently helmed the modern musical La La Land (2016). So far, his feature films have covered a broad range of colors, emphasizing the dramatic while also embracing lighter tones as something more than filler.
Walking a fine line between the dreaded “respectable biopic” field on one hand and “reworked history to make it relevant” drama on the other, Chazelle lands most everything with a lighter touch than expected. First Man feels like a deeply personal expression about the lessons we can learn from quiet, qualified individuals who are driven by forces that we may never fully understand.
The film will open in theaters everywhere on Friday, October 12.