Here’s the radical notion behind Damien Chazelle’s “First Man”: Tell the story of mankind’s boldest adventure thus far, the Apollo 11 mission that reached the moon nearly a half-century ago, but tell it through a taciturn, emotionally closed-off hero, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the lunar surface. And pay close attention to this man’s state of mind and spirit, so the story is equally about what it means to be flesh-and-blood human while walking on Earth.
Armstrong is played by Ryan Gosling. It’s an ideal match—an intensely private actor playing a taciturn problem-solver who is, before and after everything else, an engineer. The film finds humor in Armstrong’s stripped-back syntax and anguish behind his cool façade: the inconsolable loss of a 2-year-old daughter to cancer; his painful inability to bid his two young sons a proper, open-hearted goodbye before leaving home for the moon mission.
However inward the hero may be, the movie around him is thrillingly outward, not to mention poundingly onward and relentlessly upward. For a while it’s hard to reconcile “First Man” with the song- and-dance spirit of Mr. Chazelle’s previous film, “La La Land,” but a gifted director is a gifted director, whatever the material; the same applies to the writer, Josh Singer, whose two previous feature scripts were for the journalism dramas “Spotlight” and “The Post.”
“First Man” covers a lot of space and ground: a daunting succession of failure, catastrophe and near-catastrophe leading to the lunar landing; domestic opposition to the cost of the program; competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that turned a scientific venture with a huge political charge into a flat-out race for international prestige.
The program’s cost wasn’t only fiscal; the price paid by the astronauts’ families is dramatized vividly. Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet, with lovely understatement; Janet adores her husband, but she despairs of ever living the normal life she signed up for when she married an ostensibly stable engineer. During one of several crises in the narrative, Janet lashes out at a NASA manager who insists that everything is under control: “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” she says. “You don’t have anything under control!” That’s both true and untrue. “First Man” is eloquent to the point of repetitiveness about the need to fail in order to succeed. Yet there they are in the end, Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.
“First Man” does full justice to the mission’s climax, from the unearthly power of the launch through the precarious touchdown, to four boots on the luna firma. The moonscape, rendered mostly in black-and-white, is as stirring a spectacle as you’re likely to see on a movie screen, and do see it in IMAX if you can. Most movies aim to take us out of ourselves. This one goes to majestic extremes.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.