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.