Run time: 2 hours 18 minutes
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Claire Foy, Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll
Director: Damien Chazelle
The first thing folks heard about First Man, the out-of-this-world-beautiful film about astronaut Neil Armstrong, was when politicians who hadn’t seen it said it should’ve shown him planting the U.S. flag on the moon. (It does show the flag on the moon, and dozens of flag shots.) “Does that choice bother me?” wrote Kyle Smith, arguably America’s leading conservative film critic. “Not really. The movie’s focus is simply elsewhere” — mostly on the heart and mind of Armstrong, a patriot who repeatedly risked death for the rest of us but was an inward person, not a flag-waver or big talker. He refused to join a star-spangled parade honoring him in his Ohio hometown, pop. 10,300. The Washington Post called him “cold and distant as the lunar far side.”
Precisely because it’s a warm and intimate portrait of this intensely quiet guy, perfectly portrayed by brooding Ryan Gosling, and because Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) don’t ape the gung-ho spirit of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, First Man goes beyond them. Smith calls it the year's best film, predicting its fresh, contrarian style will fetch 11 Oscar nominations. Pundits rank it the third-likeliest front-runner to win best picture.
It’s a contemplative, melancholy, moving film, but it also packs you into the cockpit for some of the most bone-jangling shaky-cam action you ever saw. In an era when up to seven test pilots a month were killed, Armstrong nearly died seven times himself — and that was before the hairy moment in 1969 when he found a safe spot to land on the Sea of Tranquility with 15 seconds’ fuel left. We feel strapped in with him in a primitive X-15 rocket plane crashing into the stratosphere, aboard a Gemini spacecraft when a short circuit made it spin end over end once per second, and dangling from a parachute 100 feet from earth after exiting his spacecraft a half-second before it erupted in a fireball.
But the most intense perils we see him endure are closer to his heart. When his home catches fire, he barely rescues his children. He refuses to tell his closest friends how he feels after his 2-year-old daughter dies of a brain tumor — and some of his very best astronaut friends die, too, after we’ve come to know them a bit. The outer-space heroics are all anchored in Armstrong’s private grief, blazingly conveyed by Claire Foy (The Crown) as his embittered wife, who divorced him decades later. In a great scene, she confronts the astronauts’ boss (Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler, 53): “You're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don't have anything under control!
The filmmakers have everything under control: the claustrophobic close-ups, the astronaut’s-eye view of chaos they must control or die fast, the vividly sketched relationships, chiefly Armstrong’s with his strong-willed wife and with his emotional opposite, second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), a blunt, talkative astronaut who once performed on Dancing With the Stars.
First Man ends with a silent emotional moment between two people still reacting to the experience of the landing on the moon, which Armstrong called “beautiful” and Aldrin called a “magnificent desolation” (to us, it looks like both). Only an utterly different movie could have ended with the planting of Old Glory amid fanfare. By putting us inside the heart that beat inside that space suit facing the flag, the moonscape and the earthrise, the filmmakers achieve through facts what a transcendent 2001: A Space Odyssey could not do through fantasy. As Kyle Smith put it, “First Man is why we go to the movies.”