Re-teaming with “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling plays aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.
Chazelle says: “We wanted to tell the story about one of the most epic accomplishments in human history but root it very much in the intimate day-to-day details of what it was actually like to be Neil at that moment in time.”
That happened in 1969, but Armstrong’s story begins in 1961, when he was an X-15 test pilot, trying to tame a tumbling plane 140,000 feet over the Mojave Desert. Returning from the stratosphere, ever-stoic Armstrong faces an even greater challenge: his toddler daughter Karen’s fatal brain tumor.
After her death, Armstrong joins NASA’s Gemini-Apollo program, moving to Houston with his then-pregnant wife, Janet (Claire Foy) and son: “It’s a fresh start. It’ll be an adventure.”
Living in tract-homes, the astronauts and their wives face daily danger which often ends in tragedy. During a pre-launch test at Cape Canaveral, Armstrong’s closest friend/colleague Ed White (Jason Clarke) is incinerated in a cockpit fire, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee.
Like everything else in his life, laconic Armstrong internalizes his grief. His notoriously taciturn, self-effacing demeanor proves a bit of a turn-off, as is the abrasive cynicism of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll).
Based on James R. Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” (2005), it’s adapted as a docudrama by Josh Singer and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, focusing on Apollo 11, America’s first successful manned mission to the moon, making good on Pres. John K. Kennedy’s vision for the future and “a giant leap for mankind.”
Opposition to the expenditure of taxpayers’ money is voiced by Kurt Vonnegut and Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon,” pitting NASA against poverty/racial inequality.
Unlike “The Right Stuff,” which jauntily depicted John Glenn and the Mercury astronauts, this authentic biopic is weighted down with measured astrophysical detail, audaciously delineating what the stakes really were.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “First Man” is an inspirational, if enigmatic 8, befitting an inscrutable hero.