Hollywood spends a lot of time in outer space. From a galaxy far, far away to “Houston, we have a problem,” movies have been taking us to space since humans invented celluloid (almost literally, as one of the first movies ever made was Georges Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon”).
So, since space is hardly the final frontier on screen, it’s pretty hard for a movie about space travel to feel fresh and vibrant. That is part of what makes “First Man” all the more impressive.
The movie chronicles the life of Neil Armstrong throughout the 1960s and is a stirring portrait not only of a man but of mankind’s most astounding accomplishment. “First Man” also makes the grade simply by being the work of some talented filmmakers entering their prime.
Director Damien Chazelle (the Oscar-winning writer/director behind “La La Land” and “Whiplash’), using a screenplay by Josh Singer (the Oscar-winning writer behind “Spotlight” and “The Post”), built a movie around one of Hollywood’s most dependable leading men, Ryan Gosling.
While there is some familiar overlap here in great movies about NASA’s golden age like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” Chazelle boldly keeps the focus zeroed on Armstrong to the point the audience spends most of the movie sharing the same space helmet.
Humanity, not space, is the star of the show and Chazelle puts us right in the cramped cockpit with Armstrong and his crew and gives us the teeth-rattling experience of being strapped onto the front of a Saturn rocket and hurtled into orbit with only space-race era technology protecting us from total annihilation.
But, Chazelle earns the emotional thrill and wonder of a trip to the moon by first letting us into Armstrong’s emotionally fraught personal life and his relationship with his long-suffering wife Janet (the great Claire Foy), who sends her husband out the door every day with no guarantee he will ever come home.
Simply put, “First Man” is a great film and one that deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Chazelle has not only delivered a movie that leaps out as an early favorite for awards season, he’s given himself a lot of help by assembling a dynamite supporting cast that includes Lukas Haas, Ciaran Hinds, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, and Kyle Chandler.
While this movie is right up the alley of a space camp nerd like myself who spent a lot of his childhood dreaming of being an astronaut, it’s also a movie-going experience that drives home for everyone just how incredibly impressive it is we as a species sent one of our own to the freakin’ moon.
This is one not to be missed.
“First Man” is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.