First Man creates moments of sublime beauty, both visual and aural

Neil Armstrong was not the first parent to lose a child in
infancy, but that tragic fact underscores much of what takes
place in First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s look
back almost 50 years at the events leading up to the first moon

Following up on his collaboration with Chazelle in 2016’s
La La Land, Ryan Gosling perfectly embodies the
taciturn engineer/test pilot that was Armstrong. He could be
funny, loving and in his own way emotional, but his default
mode was introversion.

So while it may not be fair to Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to
have him make a callous remark about the death of another
astronaut and then defend himself by adding: “I’m just saying
what you’re thinking,” it is pure Armstrong when Gosling
replies: “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

Claire Foy.
Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures via AP

In many ways, the two hours and 20 minutes of First
skips from catastrophe to near-catastrophe on its way
to the ultimate triumph of the moon landing. (Though even that
is coloured by Armstrong’s recollection of his deceased
daughter, in a moment that pushes the envelope of artistic
license but hits an emotionally resonant note.)

The film opens on a test flight of the rocket-powered X-15
aircraft in which Armstrong narrowly missed hitting some trees
on landing. We witness the funeral of his daughter; a
near-disaster on his first space flight aboard Gemini 8; the
Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts; and a crash-landing
of the lunar landing research vehicle from which Armstrong
ejected with less than a second to spare. “We need to fail down
here so we don’t fail up there,” he tells a flustered NASA
director (Ciarán Hinds). We even hear, on the eve of the
landing, a portion of a presidential speech, never delivered,
titled In the Event of Moon Disaster.

This may sound like something of a downer, and it’s also worth
noting that the score, by Justin Hurwitz (another La La
alum), tends toward sobriety when it’s not lapsing
into total silence. (Compare his low-key music with the jolly
bombast that was James Horner’s score for Apollo 13, a
story about an accident that almost claimed the lives of three
moon-bound astronauts.)

But Chazelle more than compensates with moments of sublime
beauty, both earthbound and in space. Flying in the face of
cinematographic conventions, he shoots much of the X-15 footage
and all of the Gemini 8 launch from within the craft, so we see
only what the pilots see. And while this is the dawn of the
Space Age, the soundscape inside these vehicles, punctuated by
mechanical rattles and the groans of stressed metal, sound more
like that of a Second World War submarine.

from left, Corey Stoll and Lukas Haas.
Daniel McFadden/Universal
Pictures via AP

The lunar footage is superb, and the next best thing to being
there. Shot with IMAX cameras, it pushes viewers out of the
tiny lunar module and onto the moon’s silent surface,
undisturbed for eons. If you’re a fan of extraterrestrial
exploration, this is your goosebumps moment.

The sprawling cast includes Christopher Abbott as Armstrong’s
Gemini 8 co-pilot; Kyle Chandler as astronaut chief Deke
Slayton; Lukas Haas as Apollo 11’s command module pilot, Mike
Collins; and Jason Clarke as the sympathetic Ed White. They
sometimes get lost in the fast-moving narrative, but harder to
miss is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife.

The star of The Crown (and the upcoming Girl in
the Spider’s Web
) plays a member of that thankless
sorority, the astronauts’ wives club, but she gives Janet the
spirit and spitfire it must have taken to manage a household
and two small boys with a husband for whom away-at-work could
mean a 350,000-km distance. Her refusal to let him leave for
the moon without a word to his sons – which he handles with all
the warmth of a press conference – sets that scene on fire.

Armstrong’s reactions can at times be darkly funny; the
screenplay, by Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight),
captures the rhythms of his quotations in the biography by
James R. Hansen on which it’s based. Asked by a reporter what
he plans to take with him to the moon, Armstrong replied: “If I
had a choice, I would take more fuel.” It’s clear Gosling’s
Neil will generate much Oscar Buzz.

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