Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” is everything a good biographical drama should be, and absolutely nothing that one would expect.
In capturing its subject, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the movie respects the emotional reserve Armstrong built around himself. What’s more, it extends that reserve to what one might think would be an easy thing to exploit for tears and cheers: Mankind’s landing on the moon.
The fact that Chazelle chose this project to follow up his romantic, open-hearted “La La Land” shows some guts — and shows he can work in many more moods than anyone realizes.
For a story about one of humanity’s greatest triumphs, “First Man” is mainly a chronicle of the failures and tragedies along the path. As Armstrong, played with coiled intensity by Ryan Gosling, says after one such failure, “We fail down here so we don’t fail up there.”
The script, adapted from James R. Hansen’s authorized biography by Josh Singer (who co-wrote “The Post” and “Spotlight”), begins in 1961 in the air, as Armstrong works as a test pilot on supersonic aircraft that skirt the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. He’s a good pilot, the powers that be say, but he’s distracted by the health problems of his 3-year-old daughter Karen, who has cancer. Karen’s death is a tragedy for Neil, his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and their other children that colors the rest of their lives.
Seeking a fresh start, Neil enrolls in NASA’s astronaut training program. NASA’s mission, after being beaten by the Soviets at every step of the space race, is to put a man on the moon and bring him back to Earth. We follow the process of the test runs, in the Gemini and early Apollo flights. Sometimes, astronauts were nearly killed — and in one tragic instance, astronauts were killed.
Chazelle also puts the spotlight on Janet, the dutiful wife who works to maintain a brave face in front of the cameras, but privately rails that NASA’s “boys” aren’t as in control of things as they pretend to be. Together, she and Gosling’s Neil are a yin-and-yang of personalities, bringing out the best in each other through adversity.
The movie smartly depicts the hustle-and-bustle of NASA’s astronaut corps, with a solid ensemble that includes Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham and Corey Stoll (who plays Armstrong’s abrasive foil and eventual Apollo 11 colleague Buzz Aldrin). Kyle Chandler provides a fatherly oversight as Deke Slayton, the director of NASA’s astronauts.
Chazelle opts to show the space missions not with Kubrickian sterility but with all their rough-and-tumble edge, every shake and shimmy conveyed through wobbly visuals and a sound design that will jiggle the audience’s collective backsides. In many scenes, Linus Sandgren’s handheld camera puts the viewer in Armstrong’s place, feeling every jostle and wobble as it happens. The finale, the depiction of the Apollo 11 moon landing, was filmed using IMAX cameras for maximum detail — and it’s difficult to tell how much of the rocket’s assent is documentary footage of the era and how much is modern visual effects.
It’s probably impossible to re-enact Armstrong’s feat without generating some feeling of pride and accomplishment in the heart of every human who sees it. Chazelle doesn’t deny us that glory, but what he does that’s so remarkable in “First Man” is that he give it a personal meaning — of an astronaut who pushed down his sadness, of a wife who kept her family together through it all, and of a nation that needed a hero.
Opening Friday, Oct. 12, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. Running time: 138 minutes.