FILM REVIEW – FIRST MAN. With Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber. Written by Josh Singer. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. 141 minutes.
Ryan Gosling has his fans but while he has a number of solid performances under his belt, all too often he underplays his roles to the point of inertia, as with “La La Land” and “Blade Runner 2049.” With FIRST MAN, in which he plays Neil Armstrong, he has found the perfect part in that he plays a man who revealed very little of himself to the public or even to those who were close to him. It’s hard to say what the future may hold but this may be the performance for which he’ll be remembered.
“First Man” is the story of the U.S. space program, seen through the eyes of Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. For viewers old enough to remember the actual event, it’s an impressive recreation of history, managing to generate suspense even when one knows what is going to happen. For younger viewers, it captures the sense of wonder that captivated supporters of NASA and what came to be called the “space race.” Having been repeatedly bested by Russia in launching satellites and in manned space flight, President John F. Kennedy put America on the path to put the first man on the moon.
Based on James R. Hansen’s book, it focuses on Armstrong, giving us a look at a man who was conditioned to persevere regardless of the circumstances. The film opens with him surviving a dangerous test flight, but perhaps the most revealing moment comes when his future moon partner Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), notes that the deaths after the Apollo 1 tragedy opens up opportunities for the other astronauts. When he says that he’s only pointing out what they’re all thinking, Armstrong replies that maybe he shouldn’t. Gosling walks a tightrope as Armstrong, rarely revealing his feelings so that when he lets the mask slip it has maximum impact, whether it’s offering a wry smile to a fellow astronaut or discussing with his children the uncertainty of his return from his mission. Indeed, death is a recurring theme not only in his personal life but with the repeated reminders of the dangers of what they are trying to accomplish as friends and colleagues perish along the way.
Director Damien Chazelle has upped his game from his previous films, the uneven “Whiplash,” which succeeded on the strength of a bravura performance from J.K. Simmons, and the overrated “La La Land.” Perhaps it helped that, for a change, he did not write the script and that Josh Singer has given him a much more solid base from which to work. Thus, we get suspenseful sequences such as Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission, and we get personal details about the relationship between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who demonstrates she’s no pushover for her husband or for NASA, yet clearly worked at maintaining a solid marriage.
In real life, Armstrong came back from the moon in 1969 and did not go on the lecture circuit or otherwise try to cash in on his fame, but largely withdrew from public life. “First Man” provides a sympathetic portrait of a true American hero, acknowledging that he was a complex person who was more interested in doing the job than getting the acclaim.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.