Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. It's such a commonplace piece of knowledge now that the terrifying wonder, the global ramifications of that moment, have been lost. Space travel has become the property of billionaire technocrat dude-bros. What the La La Land duo of director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling as Armstrong have undertaken in this tale of the early days of space exploration is a rescue mission: to reclaim as heroes these fragile men, strapping themselves into ramshackle machines and hurling themselves into the wondrous void to give us a new horizon.
Chazelle swaps one set of classic American iconography, that of the movie musical, for another, that of Gemini and Apollo-era NASA. Working from Josh Singer's adaptation of James R. Hansen's First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, he doesn't simply recount the biographic details of the astronaut's life from 1961 (his final year as a Naval test pilot) to 1969 (his world-changing walk). Instead, what he and Gosling create is a portrait of a specific kind of man, the kind that dedicates himself to an undertaking that is massively dangerous and inconceivably complex (at one point attempting mind-bending math while literally barrel-rolling on all three axes through space) but does so without ego. Underlying everything are two dramatic leaps: First the death of his daughter Karen, and second that he was an engineer first and not a military man, making him the broken outsider. It's in the understated personality clashes with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Stoll, proving yet again that he is one of his generation's finest character actors), who seemingly can't have a thought in his head without expressing it. For Armstrong, it's OK to keep things to yourself.
Chazelle never glosses over the immense danger; instead, it's ubiquitous. It's in the way that, when there's a knock on the door and the whispered messages come, Neil's wife Janet (Foy) doesn't ask, "What happened?" but instead, "Who was it?" The "shut up and die like an aviator" macho glibness of The Right Stuff (still the granddaddy of all space exploration dramas) is gone, and by pulling back on hyperbolic performances, he lets the tension blossom organically; and Gosling, always a man of quiet moments, has never been more elegantly subtle, communicating volumes in the buckle of a knee, or a ghost of a smile. He doesn't try to make Armstrong a modern man, but instead explore why he could risk burning up in orbit while he could barely communicate with the ever more frustrated Janet.
It's up to cinematographer Linus Sandgren to give First Man its almost operatic sense of drama. He replaces the Technicolor glories of La La Land with something closer to the period graininess of his work on American Hustle or Battle of the Sexes. But he adds rawness and intimacy: The camera mostly shows what Armstrong saw, leaving his experience to talk for him, rather than making the character do it. The passive experience of being in a movie seat has rarely been more appropriately applied: We are strapped in to those tiny tin cans with Armstrong, we are spinning out of control, we are spinning so fast that the world becomes fragments of light. The world is caught in supertight close-ups, except for rare, almost static wide shots of massive vistas, of rockets ascending, of fireballs in the sky. These moments make Armstrong heroic: Not through some gung-ho swagger, but purely for being prepared to be there, battered and wonderstruck in the face of the infinite.
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