There’s enough going on in director Damien Chazelle’s tense, distinctive Neil Armstrong biopic, “First Man,” to leave the climactic, inspired Apollo 11 moon landing sequence aside for a few paragraphs. So hang in there, please, and we’ll get to the damn flag.
“First Man” comes from the James R. Hansen biography of the same name, exploring the far reaches of uncharted territory. The lunar mission, yes, of course. But really Chazelle’s film, written by Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Post”) has its hands and its interests full with prying open, tactfully, the clam that was Armstrong, a famously tight-lipped aeronautical engineer and history-maker.
Ryan Gosling is an apt choice for this role, though he has to work hard at seeming like a regular Joe, even an emotionally bottled-up regular Joe. The actor’s air of vaguely imperious, sphinx-y cool doesn’t easily accommodate conventional, overt heroics. This is also why the casting basically works (better overall, I’d say, than in Chazelle’s previous film, “La La Land”). Chazelle doesn’t use Armstrong’s achievement to make an “America first” public-service message. Rather, “First Man” prioritizes the sheer, deafening mechanics of each flight, every orbit and the succession of risky missions. The claustrophobic experience of being inside aircraft and spacecraft in one life-and-death scenario after another: That’s the movie you get here, built around a private man.
It’s not Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” in other words. That film, rousing and satisfying, got more feel-good feels out of a rescue mission than “First Man” gets out of a climactic mission that required no rescuing. En route to that climax, Chazelle returns cyclically, methodically, to variations on two themes: getting “up there,” and making sense of Armstrong’s life, marriage and buried grief over the early death, from cancer, of the Armstrongs’ daughter, Karen.
Claire Foy makes for a quietly fierce and wholly convincing Janet Armstrong, a woman living with uncertainty and potential tragedy every second. Chazelle makes that potential vividly scary in the opening scene, in which Armstrong’s X-15 flight (one of several) bounces off the Earth’s atmosphere, nearly loses control, then lands in the Mojave Desert. The sequence is a throttling blur of spinning dials, screaming velocity (the sound designer, Ai-Ling Lee, is practically a co-star) and supertight close-ups designed to let us see Armstrong’s response to the chaos, but also to put us behind Armstrong’s eyes.
The script covers eight years in the Armstrongs’ lives. The scenes of family life, and the Armstrongs’ boys, and poolside cookouts, establish the normality; the scenes of the X-15 flight, the later Gemini missions and finally the 1969 Apollo 11 success establish the stark thrill of the astronauts’ accomplishments. Chief among the supporting players, Jason Clarke adds a touching, stalwart quality as Ed White, Armstrong’s friend and steady confidant. Throughout “First Man,” death comes suddenly to some, while others are left processing the dread and loss.
This is the director’s fourth film and the first without a music foreground. Still, “First Man” shares many traits with his musicals “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” and “La La Land,” and the jazz psychodrama “Whiplash,” notably a portrait of a man trying to reconcile his work with everything taking him away from that work, and his obsessive focus on getting the notes or trajectories right.
In one interview scene, Armstrong is asked whether his daughter’s recent death has been tough to shoulder. Gosling pauses, and clearly doesn’t want to give his interrogators any reason to doubt his abilities. “I think it would be unreasonable to assume it wouldn’t have some effect,” he manages, carefully. The key invention in “First Man,” relating to Armstrong’s memory of Karen, will strike some viewers as a bit much, while others will be grateful for the emotional flourish after so much clamped-down on-screen anxiety.
A few things prevent “First Man” from being remarkable, I think, instead of merely expert. Singer’s script is efficient and effective, no more. Chazelle’s decision, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren, to go full, faux-documentary shaky-cam in the household scenes imparts a clichéd sense of movie urgency. Composer Justin Hurwitz has come up with an excellent primary theme, rolling and melodically suspenseful, but the fully orchestrated waltz he delivers for the Gemini 8 flight feels pushy. (It’s a “2001” nod, among other things, to Stanley Kubrick’s use of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube.”)
On the other hand, it takes a writer and a director of serious talent to end “First Man” the way Singer and Chazelle do: with a wary reunion of Neil and Janet, indicating that nothing in this life is ever easy. Subtly the reunion points to what happened years later, outside the movie’s parameters.
Now, the flag. In the moon landing and first-walk passages, which are sublime and make “First Man” well-worth seeing, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) go about their business while Chazelle and company go about theirs. The visual realization of what happened on July 20, 1969, is staggering and is dramatically effective in its hushed quality. This isn’t a Michael Bay movie. The planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface does not get a hammy, overscored close-up.
I’m glad Chazelle’s film offers some fresh points of view on its subject; it’s proof he’ll be able to keep his filmmaking wits about him.