An American enigma comes poetically and touchingly to life in “First Man,” a nervy account of the American space program and the astronaut years of Neil Armstrong, culminating with “One small step for man.”
Ryan Gosling, like Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager and Tom Hanks’ Jim Lowell in earlier spaceflight histories, sets out to embody a buttoned-down, stoic American “type” — a “Mad Men” era man’s man with “The Right Stuff” — and succeeds, filling the gaps about a most famous, most private and press-shy hero, making the iconic Armstrong flesh and bone.
Director Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) rattles the nerves and raises the stakes with this electric reminder of the bravery and unflappable competence that marked those chosen to help the United States beat the Soviet Union in The Space Race.
Chazelle narrows the field of vision, giving us medium shots of parts of space vehicles and training craft, close-ups of sweating astronauts and recreating what the very little they could see, hear and feel, strapped to the top of a liquid bomb taller than the Statue of Liberty.
We experience the tiny, iced-over windows, archaic LEDs and electrical switches, grimy knobs and near-darkness in a deathly silence shaken by every groan, creak, pop and bang the absurdly complex and yet shockingly primitive space craft these select few were flying.
Claire Foy is the equally stoic wife, Jan, who says “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life.” She makes Mrs. Armstrong bluntly supporting but achingly alone, wed to a man who didn’t talk with her about anything, even the little girl they lost to brain cancer just as the engineer/pilot’s spaceflight career was taking off.
The screenplay and Gosling’s performance suggest that death, so close and intimate, shaped the private man’s determination to become even more private. In press conferences with impertinent or under-informed reporters, Armstrong was not one to suffer’s fools, gladly or otherwise. Gosling makes the curt answers funny.
Like many a famous man of few words, Armstrong chose his few words carefully, not giving in to hyperbole. If he said he was “pleased,” he didn’t mean “thrilled” or “Thankful” to some deity or other. Many of those few words — “The Eagle has landed” — have become cultural touchstones.
Josh Singer’s script picks up the story with Armstrong wrestling with the X-15 and his doomed child’s fate, takes us through the engineer’s harrowing Gemini 8 mission, which went haywire with Jan listening on the home’s hard-wired Mission Control audio feed until NASA panicked and turned her off.
“You’re a bunch of boys! You don’t have anything under control!”
We see Neil’s selection for Apollo, the disastrous Apollo 1 fire and actual news footage of the day of public figures (Kurt Vonnegut, with Leon Bridges as Gil-Scott Heron doing “Whitey on the Moon”) and the public at large complaining “What’s all this for?” with Armstrong fending off silly reporters and drawling, myopic senators looking to bait him into an admission that the space program served no great purpose.
Familiar faces give what little meat the film has left over for the famous supporting cast. Kyle Chandler is quite good as Deke Slayton, the astronaut condemned (until Skylab) to run the earthbound side of the astronaut program, Shea Whigham is an earthy astronaut Gus Grissom, with Jason Clarke as space-walker Ed White, Lukas Haas as Apollo command module pilot Michael Collins and Corey Stoll giving Buzz Aldrin all the blunt cockiness the Second Man on the Moon became famous for.
I want to see a Buzz movie.
But none of those supporting turns match the throw-weight of the cast of “Apollo 13.” And the picture so avoids the jaunty swagger of “The Right Stuff” that it becomes an elegy for an America that embraced science, aimed high and inspired the world “back then.” The commentary on the Trump Era isn’t subtle.
Chazelle’s film still stands with those two earlier classics, with jittery camera work lending urgency, stellar effects (Spielberg is a credited producer) used sparingly and the best sound design since last years’ Oscar winner, “Dunkirk.” The director and his team use the silence of space well, the hellish explosions and rattles of spaceflight back then even better.
If NASA doesn’t go to school on “First Man” for their astronaut training regimen, or at least their “Apollo to the Moon” theme park simulators, they’re missing the flying boat.
And Gosling caps an already-distinguished career with an unfussy performance that lets us see behind the stone-faced public mask this most enigmatic American hero wore, from the moment he became a public figure to the very end of his days.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Ciaran Hinds, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Jason Clarke, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry
Credits:Directed by Damien Chazelle, script by Josh Singer, based on the James R. Hansen biography, “First Man.” A Dreamworks/Universal release.
Running time: 2:21