Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning smash LA LA LAND, is a quietly profound adaptation of James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Neil Armstrong. Chazelle re-unites with his LA LA LAND lead Ryan Gosling, who brings his patently stoic presence to the part of Armstrong as we follow him on his epic journey from edgy test flights to the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.
Even though one knows exactly how this film will end, Josh Singer’s (SPOTLIGHT, THE POST) screenplay provides a strong sense of danger as the road to space is littered with casualties including Ed White (Jason Clarke), who was the first American to walk in space; Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham).
This is never off the mind of Armstrong’s spouse, Janet Shearon, played by The Queen’s Claire Foy, who makes the most of the standard worried wife back at home role. Foy, utilizing a convincing American accent, appears to have trouble emotionally connecting with her husband, who Gosling coldly plays except for in the scenes set in space. The point apparently being that Armstrong’s real love was the stars. This is probably why they got divorced years later (not covered in the film, of course).
Aided by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shot LA LA LAND, Chazelle paints an impressionistic picture of the space race era in which they show more than they tell what went down. This adds to the film’s dream-like feel at times, especially in dealing with haunting flashbacks to before Armstrong’s 2-year old daughter died, something that reminded me of the abstract approach of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.
Since I’ve grown up on the stories of the moon mission, and seen countless re-tellings of how the men and women of NASA struggled to reach the final frontier (in other words, there’s no way this wouldn’t have some of the stuff that’s in THE RIGHT STUFF), many of the aesthetics here are very familiar – having 2001-ish style strings during one sequence for instance – but the lucidity of how authentic everything comes across from the period stylings to how dead on the imagery of the moon looks made for an immersive experience all around.
Cazelle wisely decides to stick with what the astronauts – Gosling’s Armstrong, and Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin – saw through cramped capsule windows, or their lunar helmets, and the effect makes you feel like you’re getting what the incredible experience really looked like.
For much of FIRST MAN, the only thing that broke up the visually poetic spell for me was Gosling’s dead eyed performance. But when his eyes light up at the view of the heavens that very few humans have seen (also when giving a speech about said experience), one can get what the film has to say about the character, the real man, and his fantastic adventure that is faithfully and beautifully recreated.