If stoic heroism sounds pretty good right about now, "First Man" lands at a welcome time. The "La La Land" reunion of Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle produces a soaring, IMAX-worthy look at Neil Armstrong's life in the decade leading up to the moon landing, providing a reminder that fulfilling John F. Kennedy's vision was as much about grit, guts and determination as any feat of engineering.
Owing a considerable debt to "The Right Stuff," the 1983 movie about the Mercury 7 astronauts, "First Man" introduces Armstrong as a steely test pilot, albeit one who is at a bit of a crossroads when he's accepted into the astronaut corps. After the devastating loss of a child, the change could offer "a fresh start," his wife ("The Crown's" Claire Foy, regal in an entirely different manner) tells him.
What ensues from there, though, is a tale of trial and error, of additional death and quiet grief as these men in their not-always-magnificent flying machines try to break Earth's bonds. The misfires, the taciturn Armstrong notes in a rare display of emotion, serve a purpose -- "We need to fail down here so we don't fail up there" -- which doesn't make the casualties any less devastating.
Perhaps foremost, Chazelle (working from a script by "Spotlight's" Josh Singer, adapted from James R. Hansen's book) seeks to bring a sense of awe, of wonder, to what these men braved. As a consequence, many of the flight sequences are shot in dizzying closeups, capturing the physical impact on the astronauts, before pulling back to reveal the gaping majesty of space.
Technically, "First Man" is a dazzling accomplishment, from the cinematography to the musical score by another "La La Land" alum, Justin Hurwitz, which is alternately haunting and stirring. Chazelle clearly wants to put the audience in Armstrong's shoes -- both on Earth and the Moon -- to provide a taste of the adrenaline rush and terror these endeavors required.
The buttoned-up nature of the character puts Gosling to the test, but he conveys a great deal with mere glances and expressions, some of them directed at his colleague Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), who has a way of saying what everyone's thinking, even if, as Armstrong notes, he might be better off just shutting up. The supporting cast includes Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler, as strong, silent, unemotive types abound.
While the movie definitely plunges into the romance surrounding space exploration, "First Man" also wonderfully and economically sheds light on the era, including budding skepticism about the Apollo program in the late '60s, as the antiwar movement grew in power and intensity.
Speaking of domestic politics, it's hard to think of a more inflated "controversy" than the one that greeted the movie's arrival on the festival circuit, with cries of outrage about the omission of planting the American flag by people who hadn't seen the movie. Suffice it to say American ingenuity, the race against the Soviet Union and, yes, flags, are all over the screen, albeit in a subtle way that keeps the focus squarely on the protagonist and the mission.
Movies, of course, have had a half-century of space-faring science fiction of various stripes since "2001: A Space Odyssey" opened prior to Armstrong's famous "giant leap for mankind," so much so that it's easy to take that final frontier for granted.
Using every modern tool at its disposal, "First Man" has again presented just how harrowing that frontier was at the time, in the process planting its flag among the year's best movies.
"First Man" premieres Oct. 12 in the U.S. It's rated PG-13.
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