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The triumph of Damien Chazelle’s First Man is that it makes you question the fate of Neil Armstrong. Not consciously, of course—conspiracy theorists aside, everyone knows that Armstrong did live to walk on the moon. But from the opening scene to subsequent pre-Apollo 11 missions, Chazelle communicates the danger. We first see Armstrong in what seems to be a tin can, the camera tight on his face. Or what can be glimpsed of his face: His head is rattling around at warp speed as we hear creaks and groans and whooshing and his heavy Darth Vader breaths. Then, quiet. The command center radios the problem: “Neil, you’re bouncing off the atmosphere.” You don’t know what this means exactly, but it sounds pretty bad.
There are several more of these noisy, terrifying scenes before Armstrong gets his payday; the more staid moon landing feels almost anticlimactic as a result. (It’s not, ultimately, but we’ll get to that later.) In between, Chazelle and writer Josh Singer (Spotlight) keep things appealingly low- key, though that reportedly is reflective of the astronaut himself. At the beginning of the film—after that jangly exploit—Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is caring for his toddler daughter, who’s fatally ill. She’s not long for this world, and after she dies, he throws himself into rocketing away from this world whenever he can, too.
Neil’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy), gets increasingly concerned. Even the test missions are dangerous, and the couple have attended many funerals. Apollo seems crazy. But Armstrong is an ace and NASA keeps him busy, ultimately making him mission commander of that lunar trip. As he’s packing for Apollo—avoiding goodbyes and perhaps not confident in “see you later”s—Janet confronts him and makes him tell his sons that he may not come back. The younger boy doesn’t quite grasp his inferences. But his older one knows what’s up. If the worst happens, anger is going to mix with his grief.
Chazelle’s first two features, 2014’s Whiplash and 2016’s La La Land, have readied him to take on a special-effects-laden blockbuster… just kidding. Those films couldn’t be more different, with Chazelle seemingly following the Ang Lee path of directing. This is also the first film he hasn’t written; Singer’s script is based on a book by James R. Hansen. Unlike the similar Gravity, however, Chazelle largely eschews effects of launches for closeups of astronauts and gauges, along with walls of sound.
It’s only as the film gets into its later chapters that the director lets the skies open up. For the moon landing, Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin (a terrifically brusque Corey Stoll) near their destination in silence, which at first seems to subtract the danger they face but ultimately serves to highlight the momentousness of the occasion. There are no cheers from Houston. (Also: no American flag, which Chazelle has caught some flak for.) The director’s bouncing camera and zooms-in on the actors on Earth, however, are less affecting.
Gosling’s Armstrong is someone whose motivation wasn’t country or bravery but escape from grief, though emotion rarely rises to the surface. Foy mostly underplays here as well; her Janet instead watching her quiet husband with quiet intensity. The undercurrent is almost always tense—risky innovation is like that—but lest you think frequent loaded stillness is dull, rest assured: There’s more than enough clattering in those rockets to make up for it.
First Man opens Friday in theaters everywhere.