‘First Man’ review — Claire Foy steals this Neil Armstrong biopic

Ryan Gosling in First Man

First Man is a de-glamourized version of Neil Armstrong’s reluctant journey to becoming the first man on the moon.

What’s remarkable about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is how unremarkable he is. He’s quiet. Almost shy. Sometimes he’ll crack a joke or offer a closed mouth smile, but he internalizes most of his emotions. There are a few moments where we see them break through. Early on he breaks into tears over the death of his daughter. Later, his anger shows for a flash after he finds out some of his friends were killed in a shuttle accident. Gosling does incredibly well portraying Armstrong’s steely resolve in the wake of such adversity in First Man. But the movie is careful not to sanctify him. Armstrong was a normal man doing an extraordinary thing. But he himself didn’t think it that extraordinary. He was truly a reluctant American hero, as he’s often billed. 

First Man is a change of pace for Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle. After directing and writing three musicals—Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and the Oscar-winning Whiplash and La La Land—he tackles this biopic from a script by Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Spotlight and The Post, with a lot more restraint than his other projects. Though he is known for impressive Steadicam shots, kinetic editing, and hyperrealism in his films, First Man almost does the exact opposite. Much of the movie is shot handheld, which comes specifically in handy during the breathtaking flight sequences. Aided by the superb sound mixing and Chazelle’s knack for visual storytelling, the sequences feel dangerous and nightmarish. It truly makes you think who in their right mind would try to go to space. 

It’s something that Janet (Claire Foy), Armstrong’s wife, struggles with and ultimately understands. She knows why he’s obsessed with space and getting there, even if it’s heartbreaking for her. Foy owns this movie. So many biopics about famous men always have the doting wife archetype that often is relegated to sitting in the background and worrying about her husband. In First Man, Foy doesn’t just support him. She challenges him. She makes him take responsibility for his obsession with space. In the best scene of the movie—surely to be her Oscar scene—she confronts him for not explaining to their sons that he might not return from the trip. It’s fiery, focused, and, most importantly, realistic.

First Man
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in Damien Chazelle’s First Man

Unlike Hidden Figures in 2016, which portrayed the women of color behind another NASA accomplishment—it was nominated against Chazelle’s La La Land that year—First Man isn’t a Hollywood-ized version of the story. That’s not to say that makes Hidden Figures a lesser movie—I quite liked it. But in Hidden Figures, you want to see Taraji P. Henson be the hero and succeed and beat racism. First Man almost does the opposite and tries to portray Neil Armstrong the way that many people have described him. That stripped down version doesn’t make him the most compelling protagonist, but it matches the gritty realism of the rest of the film. 

That realism is what makes every flight sequence phenomenal to witness. It’s no wonder that Chazelle loves portraying obsessed men because he is clearly obsessed with the details. He pays attention to everything. From the smallest bolt holding a ship together to the tempo of Justin Hurwitz’s fabulous score. It’s all to communicate that space—and space travel, specifically—is terrifying and insane. The reason Foy is so successful in this film is that she is the audience surrogate. She questions why anyone would be crazy enough to attempt what Armstrong and the rest of NASA are attempting. That is until the moon landing sequence. 

The vastness and nothingness of space swallow up Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) as they finally make their approach on the surface of the moon. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography brilliantly uses the negative space of, well, space, to emphasize the emptiness of it all while Hurwitz’s score makes us feel the intensity and danger of the task. However, when the sequence comes to a head in its climactic moment, it’s not about winning the space race—the flag planting being omitted was a point of controversy for some reason—or patriotism. It’s about Neil’s grieving process. That sequence and the film’s final moments alone are worth the price of admission.

First Man is now playing in wide release.

Karl’s rating: