‘First Man’ shoots for the moon and inspires

Brian Lang, Film Critic

Everyone knows the story of the moon landing, and those old enough to remember it can tell you exactly where they were when they saw Neil Armstrong make those historic first steps onto the moon.

Renowned filmmaker Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) takes on the inspiring story of Apollo 11 and the life of its star astronaut Neil Armstrong. “First Man,” which stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy is a remarkable and moving film about America’s biggest victory in the space race.

“First Man” serves as a visual history of the NASA Gemini and early Apollo programs whose goals were to send a man to the moon, but “First Man” is also about more than just NASA history. It details the private life of the infamous Neil Armstrong, beginning with the event that drastically shaped his character — the death of his young daughter Karen. After her death early in Armstrong’s career, he rarely showed emotions isolating even his family from their husband and father.

Ryan Gosling, playing the icy astronaut, is adept at keeping his Armstrong’s emotions at bay. Armstrong’s impassivity continues when several of his fellow astronauts die during training, and also when his wife Janet sits him down with his son’s for a “goodbye talk” before the big mission. It’s hard to decide whether Gosling’s acting is profoundly good or if he’s just a cardboard cutout. His character is hard to connect with, making it more difficult to cheer for the hero.

Meanwhile, Claire Foy (The Crown) is left stranded at home waiting for her husband to return from space. Her role in this film is simply to constantly be anxious and wait, which Foy does her best to fill out. However, her native British accent periodically leaks through the Midwestern veneer she puts on. It’s a shame that such a talented character actress is given such a weak role, especially when Gosling’s performance opposite her is so uncompelling.

While “First Man” is meant to cover nearly a decade of space travel, it often feels rushed, mostly at the beginning. Astronauts come and go in a whirlwind and when a tragic accident strikes, the astronauts’ deaths barely resonate before the story quickly moves on to another mission.

Chazelle also directs “First Man” in a style that’s different from his previous films. The cameras close in on the actors’ faces, in an attempt to seemingly capture every emotion that flickers across their visage. The view is often shaky and jarring, mirroring the turbulence in both Neil’s personal and professional life, but disorienting for the audience. Sharp camera angles and grainy, sepia-like editing give the film the feeling of authentic 1960’s footage, engulfing audiences in the iconic ‘60s world of NASA.

Justin Hurwitz, Damien Chazelle’s longtime musical partner and composer, returns with a truly profound score. The soundtrack captures the triumphs, fears, adrenaline, and despondency that comprise this story and its characters. His themes are inspiringly beautiful and poignant. They almost convey the emotions Neil can never quite express. Although this is Chazelle’s first film that doesn’t orbit around music, the themes played in the background are as important as any character on screen and one of the best features of the entire film.

“First Man” reminds audiences today of the sheer terror and uncertainty that was the early space race. While it doesn’t tell the Apollo 11 story from Armstrong’s point of view, it does shed some light on his motivations and history and how his career as an astronaut molded his character.

Despite its flaws, “First Man” captures that inspiring feeling of American optimism and unbounded potential that fueled NASA to send a man to the moon. Chazelle’s film is a beautiful work in its own right, but the story it tells is what sets it apart from the noise.