Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Ryan Gosling delivers the best performance of his career as astronaut Neil Armstrong in “First Man.”
Academy Award-winning “La La Land” director Damian Chazelle sends his star, Ryan Gosling, to the moon in his follow-up “First Man,” in which Gosling plays astronaut Neil Armstrong. This amazing film is both a historically interesting epic and a deeply personal character study of the people behind it. When you consider grand achievements like flying to the moon, you ask yourself, “Can you even imagine what it would be like to do that?” This film does a painstakingly great job of helping you do just that.
The other great space-race film, “The Right Stuff,” was a fantastic and memorable tale of the nitty-gritty details and personalities in the run up to the first walk on the moon, but this film is profoundly intimate and really illuminates the psychology of those first men. Hubris, machismo, responsibility, bravery, math, friendship, one-upmanship — all are motivating factors, and Gosling gives a galvanizing performance of a man with a rather singular experience in response to awful grief.
Visceral and realistic flight sequences put you right in the incredibly loud and extremely terrifying cockpit of those flimsy contraptions, while the timeline of escalating losses puts you right in the mindset of Armstrong and others, too. Over a span of 10 years, we really see how events, from the death of his very young daughter to the loss of a rather high number of his closest colleagues, affect him. Each accident is devastating, each loss tremendous and deeply felt.
Written by Josh Singer, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Spotlight,” I want to use the word “thorough” to describe this script, but I don’t want you to think that it’s boring. It just covers a lot of emotional territory, and it does so very effectively. The context built for all of these huge decisions and actions shown is extremely satisfying. It’s also a bit on the long side, but every scene seems so important, and the sequences in the various experimental air and space craft feel violently real. I don’t think the story would have been as effective if it were cut down.
Claire Foy is extremely powerful as Armstrong’s wife, Janet; it’s a very multidimensional role and not just a silently longsuffering spouse bit. Her female energy is a welcome tonic to the testosterone driving a mission that seems many times to be a terrible idea. She accuses the men of not having anything under control, and when you consider the dreadful astronaut body count, she makes an excellent point.
Supporting actors, including Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous”), Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll as a prickly Buzz Aldrin, do more than just fill out the story. They build their own stories distinctly, in little time, and when those that are lost are lost, you really feel it, especially through the eyes of Gosling, who might give his best performance ever in this film. He doesn’t rely on his charm, but delivers a truly deep, adult role, steeped in loss but never over the top.
If the extremely diverse films of Damian Chazelle have anything in common, it is their examination of the struggle between a personal life and a career. The sacrifices required are substantial, and the motivations behind them are the real subject of the film. Harrowing, fascinating and very moving, “First Man” takes a larger-than-life story and brings the people down to earth, while never diminishing the enormity and grandeur of the achievements.
“First Man” is currently available to rent.
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