Ryan Gosling explores new territory as Neil Armstrong
There’s enough going on in director Damien Chazelle’s tense, distinctive Neil Armstrong biopic, “First Man,” to leave the climactic, inspired Apollo 11 moon landing sequence aside for a few paragraphs. So hang in there, please, and we’ll get to the flag.
“First Man” comes from the James R. Hansen biography of the same name, exploring the far reaches of uncharted territory. The lunar mission, yes, of course. But really Chazelle’s film, written by Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”) has its hands and its interests full with prying open, tactfully, the clam that was Armstrong, a famously tight-lipped aeronautical engineer and history-maker.
Ryan Gosling is an apt choice for this role, though he has to work hard at seeming like a regular Joe, even an emotionally bottled-up regular Joe. The actor’s air of vaguely imperious, sphinx-y cool doesn’t easily accommodate conventional, overt heroics. This is also why the casting basically works (better overall, I’d say, than in Chazelle’s previous film, “La La Land”).
Claire Foy makes for a quietly fierce and wholly convincing Janet Armstrong, a woman living with uncertainty and potential tragedy every second. Chazelle makes that potential vividly scary in the opening scene, in which Armstrong’s X-15 flight (one of several) bounces off Earth’s atmosphere, nearly loses control, then lands in the Mojave Desert.
The script covers eight years in the Armstrongs’ lives. The scenes of family life and the Armstrongs’ boys and poolside cookouts MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language) Running time: 2:21 Opens: Friday establish the normality; the scenes of the X-15 flight, the later Gemini missions and finally the 1969 Apollo 11 success establish the stark thrill of the astronauts’ accomplishments.
A few things prevent “First Man” from being remarkable, I think, instead of merely expert. Singer’s script is efficient and effective, no more. Chazelle’s decision, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, to go full faux-documentary shaky-cam in the household scenes imparts a cliched sense of movie urgency.
Composer Justin Hurwitz has come up with an excellent primary theme, rolling and melodically suspenseful, but the fully orchestrated waltz he delivers for the Gemini 8 flight feels pushy. (It’s a “2001” nod, among other things, to Stanley Kubrick’s use of the Strauss “Blue Danube.”)
On the other hand, it takes a writer and a director of serious talent to end “First Man” the way Singer and Chazelle do: with a wary reunion of Neil and Janet, indicating that nothing in this life is ever easy.
Now, the flag. In the moon landing and firstwalk passages, which are sublime and make “First Man” well worth seeing, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) go about their business while Chazelle and company go about theirs. The visual realization of what happened on July 20, 1969, is quite staggering, and also dramatically effective in its hushed quality. This isn’t a Michael Bay movie. The planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface does not get a hammy, over-scored close-up. Instead we see the flag a couple of times in middledistance shots. And there’s a full, natural complement of flag imagery throughout the movie.
I’m glad Chazelle’s film offers some fresh points of view on its subject; it’s proof he’ll be able to keep his filmmaking wits about him, no matter what genre he’s exploring. He has made his Apollo 11 movie. And it’s a good one. Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in “First Man.”