Like space flight, filmmaking is created to take people beyond what they already know to see what they don’t. With stunning realism and detail, the astronaut blockbuster “First Man” does just that. It shows us the commitment, traumas and almost insurmountable challenges of the most dangerous missions ever attempted.
After successes in entirely different arenas with the tense music school drama “Whiplash” and the symphonic love story “La La Land,” director Damien Chazelle has created another remarkable adventure. With tremendous personal insight, it re-creates the story of Neil Armstrong, who commanded 1969’s Apollo 11 lunar landing and made the first human footprint on the moon.
Ryan Gosling portrays Armstrong as a strong, silent, no-nonsense workaholic, in a deeply internal performance that digs down to the man’s bone marrow. From his origin as a test pilot, through his years of training as NASA’s first civilian astronaut candidate, we see him as a man who reacts to endless work and near-disaster setbacks with spartan stoicism. Stresses that would drive most people to exhaustion and burnout powered Armstrong.
While other names from NASA history appear in the film, notably Corey Stoll as fellow Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Kyle Chandler as spaceman turned administrator Deke Slayton, Gosling’s Armstrong is something of a lone wolf. Aldrin tells jokes at press conferences; Armstrong remains aloof. He’s even an arm’s length away from his wife, Janet (Claire Foy of “The Crown,” who’s excellent), and their two young boys.
The only moments we see Armstrong relaxed are when he thinks of his daughter Karen, who died in 1968, less than 3 years old, of brain cancer. The little girl’s death is undeniably a tragedy that made him suffer deep anguish, but not a thing he could express openly. Gosling, who is as revealing in suggestive silence as he is in energetic dialogue, handles Armstrong’s terse personality with unspoken understanding.
As the spirited Janet, Foy is more demonstrative. She offers a key to understanding what brought these two forceful personalities together and kept them united when it was clear that space flight might make her a widow.
In parts, this is familiar ground. The space race of the 1960s, with the United States working full speed to surpass the Soviet Union’s early lead into orbit, has already given us two suitably epic fact-based feature films: Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” which Tom Wolfe adapted from his bestseller, and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.”
“First Man” repeats some commonplace details but takes the saga further. It adds to the story’s bravery and horrific accidents a sense of emotional intimacy to the people committed to the program. It has, in its narrative, deep-space destinations.
The film is a masterpiece of visual design and sound engineering, making viewers feel as if they are right there in the shuddering rocket as it pushes itself beyond gravity or uncontrollably rotating as an accidental thruster blast makes it a violent hyper-speed gyroscope. Its stark imagery of the moon’s endless gray isolation is haunting.
But the movie’s real achievement comes through the moments in the Armstrong home. So much is expressed through so little being said. Perhaps the most outstanding scene comes when he packs to leave for the moon mission without telling his two boys that their daddy might not be coming back. It’s amplified by a parallel passage where Ciarán Hinds, playing space center director Robert Gilruth, reads a solemn eulogy prepared for the president to present if the nation’s goals and dreams only yield two lifeless men on a distant rock.
The film has earned some detractors’ criticism by neglecting to show the American flag being planted on the moon. That specific moment isn’t needed for “First Man” to stir patriotic feelings. It features President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 challenge for the nation to send humans to the moon and safely back: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
The film shows how hard it was to develop the program that enabled us to travel that amazing long road, what it cost in terms of funding and heroism and lives. In that moving context, waving a banner seems superfluous.
Colin.Covert@startribune.com • 612-673-7186
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.