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I’m a nut for science fiction as well as science fact — and so I was instantly excited when I heard that Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) was directing First Man, a film telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s first landing on the moon.  The film’s trailers, when they arrived, got me even more excited.  I am pleased to report that the film does not disappoint.

When First Man is at its best, it is a spectacularly visceral recreation of the Neil Armstrong (and his fellow space pioneers in the Gemini and Apollo programs)’s experience leading up to, and during, the incredible feat of journeying to the moon and returning safely to the Earth.  Time and again, the film is remarkable in the way that it is able to put us right into the lap of Neil Armstrong, allowing us to see what he saw and feel what he might have felt.  We’re right there in the cockpit with Neil at the start of the film when, testing a X-15 rocket plane, he accidentally bounces off of the atmosphere and almost drifts away into space.  In an incredible sequence in the center of the film, we’re right there in the space capsule with Neil and David Scott during the Gemini 8 mission, launching into orbit, successfully locating and docking with the Agena vehicle, and nearly losing their lives when the spacecraft begins to spin out of control.  And, of course, we are there in the Eagle with Neil and Buzz Aldrin when they make their historic landing on the moon.

I have seen a lot of wonderful films about the American space program and the lunar missions, but I’ve never before quite had the discomfiting feeling of claustrophobia and fear of actually strapping into a tin can on top of a rocket, as these brave men did.  First Man was able to pull me from my theatre seat into those experiences.  Mr. Chazelle and his team have impeccably recreated these moments with an extraordinary eye for details that prior films have overlooked.  We can see and feel the tactile reality of the switches in the spacecraft control panels.  We hear and feel the swaying of the platform Neil and Dave Scott walk across in order to board the Gemini 8 capsule.  We hear the groaning of the metal on the spacecraft as it launches, and the booming explosions of the rocket fire that is propelling them airborne at an incredible rate of speed.

I saw First Man on an enormous Imax screen, and I encourage you to do the same.  The visual force of the film is tremendous, and it’s rendered even more effective on the large Imax screen.

Much of the film — and especially these rocket and spacecraft sequences I’ve mentioned above — is shot in extreme closeup.  This is an effective aid to Mr. Chazelle’s approach of putting the audience right there with Neil Armstrong during these experiences, rarely pulling back to the “relief” of a wide shot.  It’s even more effective on the huge Imax screen — and even more of a showcase for Ryan Gosling’s performance as Neil Armstrong.

Mr. Gosling (returning to collaborate with Mr. Chazelle again after La La Land) has often played quiet, internal men of few words.  So he’s a perfect choice for the famously internal, close-lipped Neil Armstrong.  A lesser actor could be boring or dull playing such a closed-off character as Neil, but Mr. Gosling’s performance is a master class in expressing a roiling cauldron of emotion packed tightly away, deep down, expressed only through, say, a minute twitch of the eye.  Mr. Chazelle’s use of close-ups shines a magnifying glass on Mr. Gosling, and he rises to the challenge.

Claire Foy is very strong as Janet, Neil’s wife.  The film spends a lot of time with Janet, often intercutting tense sequences of Neil in training or in space with Janet’s experience on the homefront. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the incredible strain put upon Janet and the other astronaut’s wives, left behind at home to wonder if their husbands would ever be coming home.  Ms. Foy gives Janet a strength and dignity worthy of the real woman.

The film’s complement of supporting players is incredible.  Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) plays Ed White; Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now, Manchester by the Sea) plays Deke Slayton; Corey Stoll (Ant Man) plays Buzz Aldrin; Shea Whigham (Vice Principals, Agent Carter, Kong: Skull Island) plays Gus Grissom; Ciarán Hinds (Road to Perdition, Munich, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) plays Robert Gilruth; Patrick Fugit (all grown up since Almost Famous!) plays Elliot See; Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black, American Gods) plays Jim Lovell; Christopher Abbott (Girls, A Most Violent Year) plays David Scott; Lukas Haas (Everyone Says I Love you, Mars Attacks!, Inception, The Revenant) plays Michael Collins; Brian d’Arcy James (Spotlight, Molly’s Game) plays Joseph Walker; Ethan Embry plays Pete Conrad; and so many more.

Film fans will recognize most if not all of those actors’ names… and space program fans will recognize most if not all of those real NASA people’s names.  It’s an incredible array of talent, and I was pleased that the film found ways to include so many of these important real-life individuals.

First Man is, by design, laser-focused on Neil and Janet Armstrong.  The film sets out to tell this large, epic story by focusing intimately on these two people and their experiences at the center of this whirlwind.  And so the film doesn’t have much time for delving into any of these supporting characters.  If you didn’t already know what Deke Slayton’s role was in the space program, this movie is not going to take the time to stop and tell you.  Until the end credits, I had no idea that the character played by Pablo Schreiber was Jim Lovell (so memorably portrayed by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13).  Some might see this as a weakness of this film, but I think it’s a strength.  If you want to spend more time with all of these people, and to explore the big picture of the thousands of men and women who gave so much to the space program, then the amazing Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks mini-series From the Earth to the Moon is there for you.  It’s an incredible achievement in television that I rewatch every few years.  But First Man is, by design, something very different.  The achievement of this incredible supporting cast is that they are able to do so much with so little.  We spend hardly any time at all with, say Shea Wigham’s Gus Grissom.  But Mr. Whigham’s strong performance brings Gus to indelible life in just a few short minutes.  This is true for the entirety of the cast.

First Man has a few flaws, in my opinion.  First off, it’s a little long.  Personally, I was gripped by this story.  But I can imagine a version of this film that’s a bout 15 minutes shorter than might have been a little less straining on one’s attention-span.  (I was surprised, based on the trailers and what I’d heard about the film, at how much time the film spends charting Neil’s journey from test pilot in 1961 to walking on the moon in 1969.  The film allows us to travel through much of this journey along with Neil.  The space-geek in me loved every second.  The film-fan in me wonders if a few things couldn’t have been condensed.  One interesting choice: the film spent far longer than I’d expected on Neil and David Scott’s Gemini 8 mission.  That whole sequence was incredible, and I loved getting to see this often-overlooked moment in Neil’s career as an astronaut.  On the other hand, by the time the film gets to the Apollo 11 mission, there were moments, especially in the launch sequence, that felt a bit repetitive of what we’d already seen earlier in the film.  So I am torn, because I loved every second of the Gemini 8 stuff but I wonder how essential it all was.)

I also felt that the film either needed to spend more time with Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, or less.  We do spend a lot of time with Janet, but I didn’t feel that we got as deeply into her character as I’d expected to, and there were times where I felt that the scenes on the homefront were a little dull compared to the space stuff (and a bit of a drag on a long film).  Is this my male viewpoint clouding my judgment?  I certainly hope not.  I’m interested in the idea of spending time with Janet’s experiences during all of this craziness.  But when the film is cutting between Neil Armstrong in space, a razor’s edge from death, and Janet Armstrong disciplining her two boys back at home, well, I was just far less interested in the Janet stuff.  Intellectually I liked the idea behind that intercutting more than it actually worked for me as a viewer in the theater watching the film.

Mr. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, adapting the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, make a big choice to center much of the film around Neil Armstrong’s emotional journey of coming to grips of the death of his young daughter, Karen.  The film postulates that Neil’s buried grief from his daughter’s death is at the root of much of his behavior in his marriage and as an astronaut.  This is a fascinating idea, and not something that previous filmed depictions of Neil Armstrong and the lunar missions have dealt with.  Giving this powerful emotional story-arc to Neil and Janet gives First Man a strong emotional weight to accompany all of the drama of the space program.  For the most part, this works, and I think it’s a strong ingredient in First Man’s success and what makes this film stand out from other movies that depicted the lunar missions.  But there are a few moments in the telling of this story where I felt the film stumbled, and despite all of the film’s achievements in verisimilitude, veered away from reality in pursuit of a Hollywood, movie-fake choice.  Did Neil really decide to apply to be an astronaut the very morning after Karen died?  Did Neil really achieve an emotional breakthrough by dropping Karen’s tiny bracelet into a lunar crater?  (That last bit, at the end of the film, really had me roll my eyes.  In this article, screenwriter Josh Singer argues that there is evidence pointing towards the truthfulness of that ending, but personally I’m not buying it.)  In a movie where so much of its strength comes from it’s incredible attention to detail, those few moments that rang false surprised me.

I’m surprised by the lukewarm reception I have been seeing for First Man so far online, and among some of my friends who have seen it.  It’s not perfect, and it might run too long, but still, I thought it was a tremendous achievement and a thoroughly enjoyable moviegoing experience.  The film is viscerally thrilling and imaginative, filled with wonderful performances from the entire cast, and gorgeous imagery.  I am impressed.

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