First Man (5 stars)

First Man

Enthralling, technically exceptional Neil Armstrong biopic, reuniting Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling

Not resting on his laurels as the youngest-ever recipient of the Best Director Academy Award, Damien Chazelle has tackled a big prestige picture and crafted an enthralling, immersive account of astronaut Neil Armstrong and the historic July day in 1969 when the world held its breath as a man stepped onto the moon. Flouting the conventions of the biopic and man-with-a-mission movies Chazelle gives us an intimate, moving character drama with raw, visceral space-peril thrills.

Having set out his stall as a writer-director with Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle opts to give this screenplay assignment to someone else: another Oscar-winner, Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), whose launch pad was James R Hansen's acclaimed Armstrong biography. Foregoing the usual life-story montage one might expect for a you-are-there experience, the film starts with the literal bang of a sonic boom, pinning us in the tiny cockpit of an experimental jet flight where things are spinning south for test pilot Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in a stomach-churning, eye-bulging sequence. His emergence from the harrowing set-piece establishes from the off that this fly boy – a mathematically minded, aeronautical engineer civilian rather than a braggadocious military jock – has grace under pressure and is not given to monologuing.

That Armstrong is a man of few words is a feature in his work and at home where he doesn't articulate his feelings to wife Jan (Claire Foy), even through the agony of their daughter's failed treatment for a brain tumour. Spanning the 60s, the film follows Armstrong's acceptance and stressful training in America's astronaut programme, the dangerous exploits of the Space Race and the downtime in the Texan suburb where the tight-knit community of NASA families carry on raising kids, barbecuing and taking out the trash between huge challenges, setbacks and tragedies.

Amid an ensemble rich with character actors (Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Shea Whigham, to name a few), Gosling and Foy (as you have never seen her before – a midwestern housewife with a low bullshit threshold) carry the dramatic weight – and the odd flash of humour – without being showy but with subtle, beautifully eloquent expressiveness. And they are great with the kids.

The sound design and music are exceptional, while cinematographer Linus Sandgren uses every tool, from 16mm to IMAX, for a fly-on-the-wall look at a marriage and home-life, to the terrors of going where no man has gone before in a flimsy tin can with a rocket under your butt. The climactic Apollo 11 lunar landing is dramatised with stunning verisimilitude – and nerve-tingling suspense, even though we all know they made it – and the impact is simply awesome. Despite the ranting from certain politicians that the US flag doesn't get enough screen-time, it is refreshing and, yes, inspiring to see a hero whose claim to fame rests on the modesty, curiosity and problem-solving purposefulness with which he achieved greatness 'for all mankind'.

General release from Fri 12 Oct.

First Man

  • 5 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 2h 18min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Damien Chazelle
  • Cast: Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, Claire Foy
  • UK release: 12 October 2018

Biopic of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Gosling), with subtle and unshowy performances from Gosling and from Foy as his no-BS wife Jan. An intimate and moving character drama with raw and visceral space-peril thrills and a hero whose fame rests on modesty, curiosity and problem-solving purposefulness.