Movie review: Ryan Gosling is stellar in Damien Chazelle's tightly coiled space biopic 'First Man'

 
 
Updated 10/12/2018 2:07 PM
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  • A reluctant hero, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is determined to make it to the moon in "First Man."

    A reluctant hero, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is determined to make it to the moon in "First Man." Courtesy of Universal Pictures

"First Man" - ★ ★ ★

The sounds of silence make lots of noise in Damien Chazelle's surprising, anti-epic, historical drama "First Man," a tightly coiled study of the first human to set foot on the lunar surface of Earth's largest satellite.

Surprising because "First Man" refuses to capitalize on the easy romanticism, heroic mythologizing and patriotic bombast its subject matter can so readily inspire.

Surprising because Ryan Gosling's underplayed performance as quiet, stoic astronaut Neil Armstrong (could there be a more American movie hero name?) allows the tiniest cracks in his placid veneer to flood the screen with choked emotions.

Surprising because "First Man" stylistically veers so far away from Chazelle's two recent movies -- the explosive musicals "Whiplash" and Oscar-winning "La La Land" -- it certifies this young director to be much more than a Johnny Two-Note.

Gosling, exemplifying the economic cool of an earlier generation's Gary Cooper, displays his right stuff at the beginning of "First Man" when Armstrong pilots his X-15 on a test flight, taking it so high that it slips into the edge of space where he can no longer control the craft.

It's only the first of several gut-grabbing sequences that spell out just how dangerous the race for space exploration can be and how coldly analytical the explorers must be.

Accompanied by insidiously effective sound effects and discombobulating shaky cameras, the sequence suggests the frightening fragility of the primitive 1960s technologies.

Despite setbacks, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) shows superhuman nerve and focus in "First Man."
Despite setbacks, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) shows superhuman nerve and focus in "First Man." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

We witness Armstrong's unflappable demeanor under pressure, a quality that doesn't serve him so well back on Earth where he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), mourn the death of their little daughter Karen, who died from cancer.

If Foy snags an Oscar nomination here, it will be for the scene where she forces Armstrong to sit down with his two sons and explain to them he might not return from his upcoming trip to the moon aboard Apollo 11.

He had planned to unobtrusively slip away after the boys fell asleep. Janet, defying the cliched supportive wife role, knows when to call her fearless husband out.

In other scenes, we see the Armstrongs hobnobbing with astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Pam (Olivia Hamilton), along with Elliot See (Patrick Fugit).

Not so much with hot dog astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), supplying comic relief with his unfiltered comments. ("Hey, I'm just saying what everybody's thinking!")

Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds round out the key cast as concerned NASA officials equipped with prerequisite knitted brows.

"First Man" will have extra appeal for baby boomers who remember the fire that killed three astronauts in their grounded space capsule -- an event replicated with visceral punch and sadness.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and wife Janet (Claire Foy) spend some alone-time together in "First Man."
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and wife Janet (Claire Foy) spend some alone-time together in "First Man." - Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Of course, everything in "First Man" leads up to the climactic moonwalk where Armstrong takes that leap for mankind on a chilling, desolate, pockmarked landscape, a sequence encased in throat-gripping silence.

Here, Armstrong leaves behind something personal to remember his daughter in a single forced moment of Hollywood contrivance, one that tries too hard to inject pathos into the airless atmosphere.

That the movie does not show Armstrong planting the American flag on the lunar surface has created an odd political debate centered, I suppose, around the nebulous definition of patriotism.

Armstrong did not claim the moon for a country, but for the world, not for Americans, but for "mankind."

For a historic moment, his bold words united the Earth behind the drive, imagination, courage and commitment of the United States of America.

If that's not patriotic, we'll have to retool its definition.

• • •

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Other: A Universal Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for language. 141 minutes

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