First Man

Film Title: First Man You may not be able to tell what emotions Neil Armstrong is experiencing most of the time in First Man, but you might have a better than fair idea of how he felt physically during his flights. Being in a rocket, according to this movie, is like being inside a submarine running crazily on rollercoaster tracks at intolerable speed, spinning and creaking and sparking and thundering. There have been many credible earlier films about the journey beyond Earth — The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 — but First Man is perhaps the first one of them to convince me utterly that, yep, this is what it sounded and looked and felt like. A solid round of applause for director Damien Chazelle (La La Land), of whose previous work I’m not fond, but whose work here is a creme de la creme pure-cinema ride, symphonic and abstract and richly filling.

Unavoidably, the scenes on the ground can’t compete. Most of the movie takes its emotional cue from Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling as a cool cucumber, a champion at tamping down his feelings. In one scene not far into the film, after Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have lost their infant daughter to cancer, we see Armstrong go off by himself and cry a bit, and that has to get us through the remaining two hours plus. Armstrong is the definition of withholding, which makes him an ideal astronaut. But Janet is the opposite — not overly temperamental, but emotionally transparent. And Claire Foy brings such a directness of spirit to her big scenes that Gosling actually bestirs himself and responds to her. Their time together isn’t all anguish and anger, either — there are scenes of them horsing around with their two boys. They never say in so many words what they mean to each other, but we get the idea.

All of that is wallpaper for the larger cinematic portrait not of Neil Armstrong the man, but Neil Armstrong the cipher onto which we can project our hopes and fears while riding with him into varying depths of space. Chazelle doesn’t want too much specificity of character, too much idiosyncrasy, getting between us and the experience. The alien grandeur of the moon sequence is heightened when the frame thickens from its common widescreen scope to the taller proportions of an IMAX screen. (On your TV, the picture will shift from a letterboxed 2.35:1 aspect ratio to a screen-filling 1.78:1.) Wedded to an eclectic Justin Hurwitz score, the images have the burnish and urgency of Steven Spielberg in his prime (Spielberg executive-produced). The action is alarming at times, sometimes close to terrifying. The creaking and clanking we hear inside the planes and rockets drive home our sense that these were essentially fancy buckets — metal tubes full of meat. A million things could have gone tragically wrong during the launch, flight, and landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969; or, rather, a million things had to go right, and it only took one thing to go wrong.

Chazelle takes the 2001 approach and cuts off the sound when appropriate (i.e., when we’re out in space and not meant to be hearing anything). Elsewhere, the sound is exquisitely detailed, fully imagined and integrated. Technically, First Man is a victory, a near-masterpiece. It doesn’t do much that other films haven’t done before, but it does those things with a purity of purpose rare in big-studio American films just now. It’s as though Chazelle and his ringer cast (not a clunker performance in the lot — Gosling’s taciturnity works for the story Chazelle is telling) had approached each scene, whether a space shot or a conversation around a dinner table, and polished it to a blinding shine. This drive to perfection sacrifices a level of humanity; a true work of art usually has at least a drop of embarrassment, a moment of swinging too hard for the fence and whiffing, some evidence of fallibility that compels us to think warmly of it. This is sometimes what people mean when they say they admire a work but don’t love it. I admire First Man enormously.

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