First Man is not the movie I expected—it’s better. It combines a truly immersive approach to space travel with an intimate story that helps define and celebrate Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. In adapting James R. Hansen’s book, screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) and director Damien Chazelle have taken a macro and micro view of this astronaut’s journey. Much of that is interior, as he suppresses his overwhelming sadness over the death of a child, but that ruminative quality is accompanied by heart-pounding action. I can’t think of another 2018 movie that opens with such a “grabber” of a sequence, a highly-charged, first-person point-of-view scene that makes us feel as if we are actually experiencing space travel on the edge of the earth’s atmosphere. It’s a hell of a way to open a film.

Chazelle’s casting is right on the money, as well, beginning with Ryan Gosling as the taciturn astronaut, Claire Foy as his loving but long-suffering spouse, right down the line with Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Ciarán Hinds, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham and a stellar lineup of reliable actors in even the smallest roles.

Gosling and Foy carry the emotional weight of the film as a loving couple whose family tragedy has driven a wedge between them. He finds refuge in his work, but she has no outlet for her growing frustration. Their feelings are beautifully expressed in outstanding, yet understated, performances.

Chazelle, whose work on Whiplash and La La Land gave no indication of his ambition to make a space-race drama, has succeeded in “thinking big” but not allowing his grasp to exceed his reach. Working with people he knows and trusts like cinematographer Linus Sandgren, costume designer Mary Zophres, and composer Justin Hurwitz, the team had ample time to prepare and talk things through with their director—a rare luxury that only someone coming off a hit movie could command. (Hurwitz’s orchestration deserves special praise, making eloquent use of the harp in early scenes and a booming orchestra by the time we reach the climax. The composer even taught himself to play the Theremin, in order to achieve an other-worldly quality.)

First Man is one of this year’s must-see movies: a quietly profound drama that pays tribute to one of America’s all-time greatest achievements.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024