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'First Man' review: Visceral, you-are-there voyage into space

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in "First Man."

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in "First Man."  Credit: Universal Pictures/Daniel McFadden

PLOT Astronaut Neil Armstrong prepares for a journey to the moon.

CAST Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke

RATED PG-13 (themes of death and peril)

LENGTH 2:21

BOTTOM LINE A visceral, you-are-there voyage into space.

In their follow-up to 2016’s hit musical “La La Land,” Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle reunite for “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong’s pioneering moon landing in 1969. Though Gosling plays the lead, it’s Chazelle — the youngest person to win a directing Oscar — who proves the star attraction. With dazzling effects, teeth-rattling audio and austerely beautiful lunar landscapes, “First Man” virtually teleports us back to the perilous early days of the space race. The sealed-off, nearly silent Armstrong, however, leaves an emotional vacuum in the film’s center.

Gosling plays Armstrong as a bygone kind of American: short hair, few words. By comparison, taciturn Apollo 1 crewman Ed White (Jason Clarke) seems like a veritable chatterbox and the less-than-diplomatic Buzz Aldrin (an amusing Corey Stoll) seems almost unbearable. In backyard barbecue scenes as authentic as your grandparents’ photo album (“First Man” was shot on grainy, honest-to-God film), the husbands and wives self-segregate for casual beers and sympathetic ears, respectively.

“First Man” excels at setting time, place and mood. Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds, as stressed-out NASA honchos, signal just how many question marks hovered over each mission, while Claire Foy, in a small but crucial role as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, does her best to keep her house, marriage and two children functioning normally. Still, it’s the movie’s technological details — the flimsy-looking spacecraft, the clunky-looking gauges — that remind us how relatively primitive space travel was in a hand-tooled, pre-computer decade.

“First Man” contains some inexplicable stumbles. Why would Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz nod to the over-nodded-to “2001: A Space Odyssey” by setting a Gemini mission to a lilting orchestral score? Why does the film dwell so morosely on Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who died at the age of 2? And are we really to believe Karen’s infant wrist bracelet is still lying at the bottom of a lunar crevasse, where Armstrong tossed it? (The script is by Josh Singer, of “Spotlight.”) As for Chazelle’s controversial decision not to show the planting of the American flag — surely one of the most meaningful and shiver-inducing visuals in U.S. history — it's a narrative choice but also a cinematic opportunity missed.

For better and for worse, “First Man” feels like a close cousin to Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” another film that masterfully reproduced the sights and sounds of a world-shaking event. The people involved, though, don’t come quite as vividly to life.

BANG ZOOM! WE'RE GOING TO THE MOON

Before we landed there and even after, the moon has been a popular cinematic symbol, representing adventure, exploration and the frightening unknown. Here are four examples:

A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) Pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies’ fanciful short film imagines the moon as a place of giant mushrooms and exploding aliens. This is the source for that famous of image of the Man in the Moon with a rocket in his eye.

DESTINATION MOON (1950) One of the first space-themed sci-fi films, based on a Robert Heinlein novel, dramatizes the dangers of lunar travel nearly 20 years before it became a reality. The movie features an early example of what’s now a common trope: the use of an oxygen tank to propel a drifting astronaut to safety.

APOLLO 13 (1995) Ron Howard’s story of the near-disastrous 1970 moon mission — Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton play the crew members — was a critical and commercial smash that earned nine Oscar nods and won for best film editing and best sound mixing.

MOON (2009) In the future, a lunar mine worker (Sam Rockwell) employed by a shady corporation discovers what appears to be his clone. “Moon” marked the film debut of Duncan Jones, son of David and Angela Bowie.

— RAFER GUZMAN

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