Damien Chazelle’s interpretation of the Apollo 11 moon landing is a visceral, emotive and carefully executed film, and a drastically different follow up to his Oscar-winning 2016 musical, “La La Land.” Based on strong source material from James R. Hansen, with a poignant score from frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz and Chazelle’s celestial vision and tight frames, First Man simply soars, standing as one of the year’s best films.
The young filmmaker leans on Ryan Gosling (“Blade Runner 2049”) to bear the weight of the entire space race and NASA’s Gemini and Apollo missions. Gosling is the titular character, Neil Armstrong, a civilian test pilot turned space explorer and the first human to set foot on the moon. The 37-year-old actor commands the screen with his characteristic grit and internal angst.
The film follows Armstrong’s early struggles as a pilot who has turned to space flight. Armstrong also quietly deals with the untimely loss of his young daughter, all while NASA expands its astronaut program to Group 2 and the Gemini missions with the intention to heed former President John F. Kennedy’s words of “choosing to go to the moon.” Gemini would prove that NASA’s space procedures could withstand docking, lunar orbit and landing, and the return flight. Armstrong enters the program early on, befriending civilian test pilot Elliot See (Patrick Fugit, “Bickford Shmeckler’s Cool Ideas”) and Air Force officer Ed White (Jason Clarke, “Winchester”), who becomes the first American to walk in space thanks to Gemini.
Chazelle’s space drama goes on to document the Gemini missions, unexpected setbacks, political tension around subsidizing space flight and Armstrong’s reluctance to be in the public eye. The scope of these missions is elucidated clearly and effectively, although screenwriter Josh Singer (Oscar winner for his writing duties on “Spotlight”) serves up character-driven beats in lieu of fiery suspense, and in places where the latter is needed a bit more.
Yet, overall First Man is structurally sound — with dazzling production values, commendable performances and compelling material. The frames are incredible, especially the expansive lunar surface and the tight confines of NASA’s early rockets. Gosling commands the screen as the grief-stricken father and aeronautical engineer. Claire Foy (“Unsane”) also shines as Neil’s loyal, but wearied wife Janet, who stands by her husband’s side as he aims to put Earth in his rear-view mirror.
Corey Stoll (“Gold”) plays a memorable — and painfully candid — Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second person to ever walk on the moon. However, he is criminally underused in a film that glosses over the climactic Apollo mission. That omission, plus controversy over the flag-planting, or lack thereof (which, predictably, became a partisan issue, with politicians curious about the filmmaker’s decision to skip the flag photo op), slightly mars Chazelle’s efforts here, but his breathtaking scenes as Armstrong descends “The Eagle,” or the lunar module, salvage any deficiency along the way. It ramps up tension built throughout the first two acts with X-15s and the Agena target vehicle, and rivals any top cinematic moment from 2018.
First Man will likely be a shoo-in for “Best Cinematography,” “Best Editing” and other visual and production awards categories, and there is no reason it shouldn’t. The lunar surface comes to life with such vividness, it’s hard to fight back chills. Chazelle’s calculated efforts to build up a reluctant leader in Armstrong mesh wonderfully with the expansiveness of the space scenes delivered by cinematographer Linus Sandgren.
The well-executed First Man stands as an important film about the strides of man and our boundless curiosity — from the Age of Discovery among European power brokers to the 20th century Space Race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and the space-bound voyages to come. Chazelle’s First Man is a must watch for anyone captivated by our centuries-long quest for answers.