Damien Chazelle sets his sights on a place at Hollywood’s head table alongside Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan with this muscular biopic of unassailable American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Based on the bestselling biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, First Man spans much of the 1960s, charting Armstrong’s journey from rookie NASA recruit to history-making moonwalker. The film hits the ground running with a stomach-churning test-flight sequence strikingly reminiscent of Nolan’s Dunkirk in its wide-eyed admiration for real-world derring-do, its meticulous attention to period detail, and its flawless technical execution.
The film is peppered with satisfyingly tactile, increasingly elaborate action set pieces, each of which serves to hammer home just how perilous the space race really was. But at its core, First Man is an intimate epic, preoccupied above all else with penetrating Armstrong’s psyche. Josh Singer’s economical screenplay portrays Armstrong as an entirely reluctant hero, and a man of few words both in private and public. As such, the role would seem to be a natural fit for Gosling, who generally excels at playing taciturn lone-wolf types. But this actually proves to be something of a hindrance, as the actor’s performance relies so heavily on familiar tics, like his trademark blank-eyed stare, that he struggles to fully disappear into the character.
Gosling is also hampered by the script’s fixation on the death of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter. The tragic event, which occurred months before Armstrong joined the NASA Astronaut Corps, is both a source of personal anguish and a motivator in the workplace. The death itself is depicted matter-of-factly, but is revisited repeatedly in flashback and hallucination sequences, to the extent that it begins to feel like Armstrong’s sole defining trait.
Claire Foy proves a magnetic presence as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, but the actress is sorely underutilized. Throughout First Man, Janet is depicted as perpetually at the end of her tether as a consequence of her husband’s laconic tendencies and extremely dangerous job. Vignettes of the their domestic life are exquisitely shot—sequences in which the camera swirls dizzyingly through the Armstrong home suggest that cinematographer Linus Sandgren took notes from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—but Chazelle keeps hitting the same muted, mournful tone, and to diminishing returns. That being said, it’s refreshing to see a prestige biopic so light on clunky expository dialogue and overt heartstring-tugging. The film’s sole foray into unabashed sentimentality, which takes place on the surface of the moon and inevitably involves Armstrong’s late daughter, is a conspicuous bum note.
Moments of levity are handled more effectively. When Janet forces her husband to prepare their kids for the possibility that he won’t return from space, the scene takes an unexpected comedic detour, with Armstrong lapsing into PR speak, addressing his young sons as if they were prying reporters. And Buzz Aldrin is portrayed by Corey Stoll as a swaggering hothead who seems to view the whole enterprise as a high-stakes dick-measuring contest. But such playful touches are few and far between, and fail to punctuate the overriding sense of dour earnestness that dominates the proceedings.
Perhaps First Man’s most laudable achievement is its entirely un-jingoistic appraisal of the American space program, with a strong emphasis placed on both its economic and human cost. When Chazelle widens his focus, it’s often to depict mounting public opposition to NASA’s endeavors. Meanwhile, over the course of his training, Armstrong loses numerous friends and colleagues, under invariably harrowing circumstances: A sequence in which a trio of astronauts perish in a cabin fire serves up some of the film’s most indelible imagery. And all of this casts a long, bittersweet shadow over First Man’s visually mesmerizing final act: Chazelle is clearly in awe of the collective efforts it took to propel Armstrong to the moon, but he remains ambivalent about whether it was all ultimately worth such immense sacrifice.