As Janet Armstrong, Claire Foy exclaims, “You’re just boys playing with balsa wood models!” to the NASA scientists preventing her from listening to the direct feed of husband Neil’s (Ryan Gosling) test flight. It’s a terrific dressing down of administrators more concerned with public relations than personnel, and a fitting description of space travel as depicted in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, which centers around Neil Armstrong’s personal motivation and the obstacles he overcame to become the first man to set foot on the moon.
Where this film shines is in its depiction of why no man had been there before: Space is not able to accommodate us any more than we are equipped to survive there. The most advanced engineering minds in the world created a system that relies on a metal box strapped to a rocket that keeps an earthling safe inside while performing advanced science under enough G-force to knock most people unconscious. The notion is as absurd as it is inspiring, which is why it gripped the public’s imagination as they watched it in real time on television in 1969.
Fifty years after Armstrong walked on the lunar surface and spoke his immortal words, we know how his story ends, but the many ways it could—and did—go wrong are less familiar. The film opens with Armstrong conducting a test flight that brings him right to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, where he marvels at the thin line that separates our planet from the vast emptiness of space. His daring and intellect get him noticed by NASA officials who are looking to surpass the Soviet Union in the space race—an opportunity he initially passes up to care for his ailing daughter, Karen, who passes away from cancer. In search of a new start, he and Janet relocate to join what would become the successful effort to put a man on the moon.
Set between 1961 and 1968, First Man conveys time and place more than the particulars of Armstrong’s biography or the nuts and bolts of space flight. We are never told what happens after the mission’s success, only his mindset before blast-off and in space—there’s no explanation of the mechanics, just that it takes an extraordinary person to do this job.
The mood of the country is briefly addressed in an awkward but well-meaning montage about social and political anxiety featuring Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem “Whitey on the Moon.” It’s a deviation consistent with what the movie is trying to achieve, but also underlines the fact that when First Man isn’t about testing, training, and launching, it can spiral out of control. Armstrong’s loss of Karen is significant, and its role in his decision to make history is a subject worth exploring, but frequently the look on Gosling’s face is more powerful than the shoehorned flashbacks.
The supporting cast is one of the best of the year—Foy, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Corey Stoll, among others—and the emotional approach to the subject is one not usually seen in a film of this scale. First Man might have been a masterpiece had certain tropes been avoided, but that is not a dealbreaker. Instead, what could have been a great movie is a really good one.
First Man PG-13, 141 minutes. Playing at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056 z A Star is Born, Bad Times at the El Royale, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, Halloween, Smallfoot, Thunder Road, Venom
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213 z A Star is Born, Bad Times at the El Royale, Colette, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, The Hate U Give, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Night School, Smallfoot, Venom, The Wife
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000 z A Simple Favor, Bad Times at the El Royale, Blaze, Colette, Crazy Rich Asians, First Man, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, The Hate U Give, Halloween, Kusama: Infinity, The Old Man and the Gun, The Sisters Brothers, Smallfoot, Venom
In First Man, Ryan Gosling turns fear and trial and error into heroism in his portrayal of Neil Armstrong.
Set between 1961 and 1968, First Man conveys time and place more than the particulars of Armstrong’s biography or the nuts and bolts of space flight.