That’s one small step from Whiplash, and one giant leap away from La La Land.
Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle is moving away from musicals at light speed with the premiere of his historical drama, First Man, at the opening night of Venice Film Festival.
And critics are loving it.
The Neil Armstrong biopic stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, and The Crown‘s Claire Foy as Armstrong’s first wife, Janet Shearon. Based on early reviews, the star-studded cast is just one of the film’s many assets.
First Man will receive a U.S. wide release on October 12. In the meantime, check out what critics had to say about their early Venice viewing below.
It shows early space travel from a fragile, first-person POV
Chazelle is so successful at putting you inside the cold, claustrophobic spacecraft that Neil never truly leaves — we’re often just inches away from his face, whether behind a visor or not — that we’re sometimes at sea when it comes to understanding what exactly these men and why it’s so important. If you’d like to know the exact purpose of the Gemini 8 mission, look it up beforehand — “First Man” won’t tell you. It’s a kind of first-person procedural, less concerned with the nuts and bolts of these undertakings than one man’s experience of them.
The movie opens with the first of several white-knuckle sequences as Armstrong mans a solo test flight 140,000 feet off the ground, exiting and then re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere with a malfunctioning bounce on the way back. Chazelle immediately summons echoes of great space-exploration films from The Right Stuff to Gravity with the infernal noise and stomach-churning rattle of what seems like a tin can hurtling around in the void. The fragility of these vessels is a constant throughout. In what will become another recurring motif, there’s also a stirring tranquility in the interlude when Armstrong penetrates the atmospheric barrier. In scenes like this, Chazelle uses the beauty of sudden silence to tremendous effect.
The moon landing sans flag planting isn’t super patriotic
It is also a film that downgrades the patriotic fervour of the landing. Armstrong and his comrades are certainly shown to be deeply nettled by news of initial Soviet triumphs in the space race, but Chazelle abolishes the planting of the stars and stripes on the moon.
But amid all the things that “First Man” is, it’s also notable for what it is not. There’s minimal flag-waving here, making it a universal story about tenacity and sacrifice, rather than anything more overtly patriotic. That’s a good thing, but it means that politics are dialed right back in general, with only some Vietnam War footage playing on background TV screens and one moment in which Gil Scott-Heron‘s “Whitey On The Moon” sounds out, making a particularly pointed comment on the social context of the era. But then Chazelle is as little interested in that context as he is in the spiritual or philosophical potential of this story (this is a tale of lunar exploration in which a journalist’s question about “feeling the presence of God” is played for a laugh).
Gosling holds back in all of the right ways
Gosling gives a tricky, compelling performance that grows on you. He plays Armstrong as a brainy go-getter who has learned to hold most of what he feels inside (he wrote musicals in college, and is now ashamed of it). Yet he lets out just enough emotion, especially when someone crosses him, to exude a quiet command. Shortly after he’s chosen to be a Gemini astronaut, Armstrong is strapped into a spherical training simulator that looks like a cross between a carnival ride and a medieval torture device. It turns you every which way at once, which results in each astronaut passing out, then running into the bathroom to throw up. But by the time Armstrong gets to ride a rocket in Gemini 8, the simulation turns real: His mission is to dock his capsule to an adjacent rocket, which happens without a hitch, but then everything goes haywire. The capsule starts “rolling left” (i.e., spinning out of the control). Gosling makes Armstrong a figure of intensely contained can-do moxie whose ability to guide a ship, especially when it’s at death’s door, is the essence of grace under pressure.
In one pivotal scene that predates Armstrong’s departure for the Apollo 11 mission, she snaps at his refusal to speak about the risks involved, and forces him to tell their kids he may never see them again. It’s a harrowing chat that Gosling half avoids through a press-conference style interview, his kids asking questions he laconically responds to, and in reinforcing a crucial rupture between First Man and Chazelle’s prior work, it crystallizes Gosling’s Armstrong as a far more fragile and intricate entry in the director’s pantheon of male heroes. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” Jan shouts to Neil’s superiors when things take a tragic turn. Watching Gosling struggling to hold the emotions in, a forced repression that can only be released away from other people’s eyes, her remarks reverberate with a sad echo. Contrasted with Jan’s indomitable and rational persona, there are moments when Gosling and his colleagues look like boys whose will to “make history” has trapped them in a protracted state of denial, and toy with vehicles whose lethal power is far clearer to their families than their own selves.