First Man: epic entertainment
Ryan Gosling does his best to dial down his star power in First Man, in which he plays astronaut Neil Armstrong with unsmiling reticence and stoicism.
Based on James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, this absorbing, meticulously detailed chronicle of Armstrong’s career — culminating with the Apollo 11 NASA mission, during which he became the first man to walk on the moon — continually undercuts the story’s inherent triumphalism and myth-making.
Like its protagonist, First Man doesn’t go in for theatrics or gratuitous emotion, however justified. It gets the job done, with professionalism, immersive authenticity and unadorned feeling, of which Armstrong himself might just have approved, however apprehensively.
First Man prepares viewers for the experience they’re about to have from its first moments, when Armstrong — a gifted aeronautical engineer and Korean War flying ace — is flying a hypersonic X-15 aircraft over the Mojave Desert in 1961.
With shaky close-ups and a deafening roar, director Damien Chazelle (working from a script by Josh Singer) never pulls back as Armstrong bounces off the atmosphere, frantically trying to bring the plane safely to ground.
Of course, Armstrong himself isn’t frantic. It’s audience members who are likely to find themselves pulling back in their seats or lurching to one side or another as his unseen, collective co-pilot.
It’s a harrowing sequence, full of dizzying, disorienting close-ups and swirling gadgetry.
First Man may not wear its heart on its sleeve but it trusts the audience to find it on their own, in a quieter and more reflective place.
Ryan Gosling is a reluctant hero as Neil Armstrong.