Review: First Man achieves total liftoff

Damien Chazelle's biopic about Neil Armstrong chases moments of rapture in the darkness

FIRST MAN (Damien Chazelle). 130 minutes. Opens Friday (October 12). See listing. Rating: NNNN

Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling follow the exuberance of La La Land with a project both bigger and smaller, following eight years in the life of Neil Armstrong, the test pilot who joined the Gemini project and eventually became the first man on the moon. 

Like Chazelle’s Whiplash, it’s a story of punishment-makes-perfect, as Armstrong weathers one trauma after another to achieve greatness – but this time around, the goal is big enough to be worth the sacrifice. 

Gosling gives one of his most contained performances, tuning out the world like a radio to focus on the task at hand – the retro-rocket that won’t fire, the gyroscope that won’t stop spinning, the ground that won’t stop coming up at him. Claire Foy matches his quiet commitment as Janet Armstrong, and though the film doesn’t dwell on the Armstrong’s marriage, we quickly understand why these two people belong together. 

As for the space stuff – well, it’s magnificent. (Consumer advisory: see this in IMAX. It matters.)

Aware they’re treading similar territory to Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren strike off in a more impressionistic direction with First Man’s space sequences, chasing moments of rapture in the darkness. Armstrong’s doing the same.

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