Review: ‘First Man’ Is a Giant Leap for Director Damien Chazelle

By Noveck, Jocelyn | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 11, 2018 | Go to article overview

Review: ‘First Man’ Is a Giant Leap for Director Damien Chazelle


Noveck, Jocelyn, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Nearly a half-century has passed since the majestic moment when Neil Armstrong stepped carefully onto the lunar landscape, left foot first, taking that giant leap for mankind.

Whether you were alive then and glued to the TV, or relived it later through that iconic, grainy NASA footage, what you probably remember is just that: The majesty.

You're probably not thinking much about the deafening noise, the claustrophobia, the terror of blasting off in a rickety sardine can that could fail at any moment for any of a thousand reasons.

Or the fact that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could have ended up stranded, left to die on the moon. President Richard Nixon had a speech ready for that dark scenario.

You will, though, be thinking of these things as you watch "First Man," the latest installment in director Damien Chazelle's meteoric career -- and sorry for the space pun, but it's entirely apt.

Intimate yet grand

An intimate character study that somehow becomes grand just when it needs to, "First Man," based on the book by James R. Hansen with a script by Josh Singer, is a worthy successor not only to Chazelle's "Whiplash" and "La La Land," but to the astronaut films that precede it, like "Apollo 13" and especially "The Right Stuff."

It's also, amazingly, the first feature film about Armstrong. Chazelle's partner here is Ryan Gosling, who dials down his obvious star wattage to give an internalized, fully committed performance as the "reluctant hero," as Armstrong's own family described him.

Gosling's task here is not merely to give dimension to a mythical American hero. He also has to play a man who famously kept his emotions in check. That may not be an asset for a movie character, but sure was an asset for the first human to set foot on another world.

And that's because this stuff was, well, terrifying

We begin in 1961, during Armstrong's test pilot days. Taking a hypersonic X-15 up for a spin, he's suddenly in trouble; he can't get back down.

"Neil, you're bouncing off the atmosphere," comes the rather concerned voice from below.

He makes it back, though, barely breaking a sweat. As for us, we're irretrievably rattled.

From heavens to home

From the heavens we go to a small home office, where Armstrong is on the phone, trying to find help for his toddler daughter, ill with cancer.

His grief over her fate will remain a theme of the film until the end. But it remains unspoken, even to his stoic wife, Janet, played here with subtlety and grit by the wonderful Claire Foy.

Seeking a fresh start, Armstrong becomes an astronaut in NASA's Gemini program. …

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