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Here’s What Critics Are Saying About First Man

Ryan Gosling in First Man
Ryan Gosling in First Man (2018)
Universal Pictures

Space! Now that I’ve got your attention, the reviews of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, today are in—and fortunately, like the film itself, there’s really no way for them to spoil the ending. The space drama follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in his literal and metaphorical journey to become the first man on the moon.

It’s a story and a genre we know all too well, but this doesn’t hold the film back—it even improves upon its galactic forbearers. Critics agree that the story is masterfully handled by Chazelle, who mixes realism with reverence, without overblowing the drama.

And of course, it’s simply an irresistible opportunity to employ space metaphors, whether that’s about “soaring,” “sky-high expectations,” “slip[ping] the surly bonds of earth or “shoot[ing] the moon.” (Michael Nordine at IndieWire wins this space race: “Chazelle is an adept flight commander, guiding the action with the elegance of a space dance in one scene and the intensity of a rocket launch in the next … It may not be a giant leap for filmmaking, but it’s another small step for this filmmaker.”)

Here are the first impressions of First Man, which opens on Oct. 12:

Chazelle overcomes the vast challenges involved in telling a story in which the audience knows the ending.

Michael Nordine, IndieWire:

You already know how “First Man” ends. It’s been nearly half a century since man walked on the moon, and nearly as long since space exploration was at the forefront of America’s collective imagination, which is to say that Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land” has more challenges to contend with than it might initially appear. They’re easily overcome: “First Man” is an anti-thriller of rare intensity.

Alonso Duralde, the Wrap:

Those of us born in the late 1960s and beyond have always taken the Moon landing as a great accomplishment, yes, but also as something of a fait accompli. In his dynamic follow-up to “La La Land,” director Damien Chazelle reminds us that space exploration has always been risky and terrifying…. “First Man” depicts the great accomplishments of NASA as huge gambles; like the best historical dramas, the film creates suspense over events whose outcome we already know.

We’ve also seen a lot of space movies, but First Man blasts away its forbearers.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

“First Man” bears the same relation to the space dramas that have come before it that “Saving Private Ryan” did to previous war films. The movie redefines what space travel is — the way it lives inside our imaginations — by capturing, for the first time, what the stakes really were… “First Man” is so immersive in its glitchy, hurtling, melting-metal authenticity that it makes a space drama like “Apollo 13” look like a puppet show.

Alonso Duralde, the Wrap:

The notion of how frightening it must have been inside those space capsules has been explored before, most notably in “The Right Stuff,” but Chazelle takes us further; when Armstrong climbs into Gemini 8 and it blasts off into the heavens, we’ve never felt this claustrophobia or listened to the creaking of the metal or felt the thrust of the rockets quite this way before in a movie.

The film is intensely atmospheric from its opening moments…

Michael Nordine, IndieWire:

It begins with a flight sequence so intense you’ll find yourself thinking — or at least hoping — it must be some pre-mission anxiety dream, with Neil Armstrong’s (Gosling) rickety deathtrap ascending higher into the atmosphere than planned before falling back to earth… The sound is deafening, the view dizzying. It’s an arresting opener, not least for the ways it instantly reminds us that this is indeed life or death: Apollo 11 may have been a success, but it was preceded by many lethal failures. Space Force notwithstanding, we tend not to look at the night sky the way we used to; Chazelle restores some of that wonder.


… and Chazelle encourages us to see things as the astronauts did…

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

In “First Man,” Chazelle restricts the action almost entirely to the point-of-view of the astronauts themselves: the things they literally see and hear during their missions (the movie eschews panoramic shots they aren’t privy to), along with what they’re thinking and feeling. From the dizzy and volatile opening sequence, in which Armstrong, as a test pilot in 1961, rides an X-15 up into the black clouds, ripping through the air to the point that he almost can’t get back (mission control: “Neil, you’re bouncing off the atmosphere”), the movie is tethered to everything the men experience: the random shards of sky looming up out of cramped windows, the topsy-turvy angles, the whole existential inside-the-cockpit zooming-into-the-void craziness of it all.

Michael Nordine, IndieWire:

Like Armstrong, he thrives under pressure: “First Man” is well crafted and tightly controlled, adapting to extreme situations on the fly and forcing us to experience every death-defying feat along with the astronauts who lived through them — and, in some cases, didn’t… 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.

…maintaining a sense of gritty realism with overblowing the drama.

David Rooney, the Hollywood Reporter:

Reteaming with his cinematographer on La La Land, Linus Sandgren, Chazelle uses handheld camera and quick cutting by editor Tom Cross to convey the pressures at home and in space. But the technique is never flashy or distractingly jittery, instead mirroring the tight control evident elsewhere.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

Oddly, the moon landing itself finds its drama in the eerie matter-of-factness with which Chazelle stages it. Here’s one event that’s already fixed, in our mind’s eye, as the greatest sci-fi movie reality ever made, so “First Man” plays it neutral and deadpan, showing us the moon through the capsule window as a death zone of luminous rubble, then reveling in the texture of the sand, in the spooky remoteness of Armstrong gazing down at his boot as he takes that first step. It’s a staggering victory with a hidden hint of the surreal, maybe even the insane. It makes Neil Armstrong a hero, but he needs to get back to reality.

The film is patriotic but not too patriotic, striking just the right note in this political climate.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

…for audiences it should prove a cathartic experience to revisit the spirit of what America once did, and what America used to be. After seeing “First Man,” it’s doubtful you’ll think about space flight, or Armstrong’s historic walk, in quite the same way. You’ll know more deeply how it happened, what it meant and what it was, and why its mystery — more than ever — still lingers.

Alonso Duralde, the Wrap:

In the grander sense, “First Man” reminds us — in an era of “truth isn’t truth,” “alternative facts,” and established science being treated like an opinion — that there was a time not all that long ago in which we (the taxpaying public, not just some bored billionaire) were capable of sending people into space and to the moon and back again. And we did it, to quote JFK, “not because it was easy, but because it was hard.” In an era of widespread hopelessness, it’s a lesson worth remembering.

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian:

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.

David Rooney, the Hollywood Reporter:

What is perhaps most notable is the film’s refusal to engage in the expected jingoistic self-celebration that such a milestone would seem to demand. At a time when the toxic political climate has cheapened that kind of nationalistic fervor, turning it into empty rhetoric, the measured qualities of Josh Singer’s screenplay, based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Armstrong, are to be savored.

Gosling is a star…

David Rooney, the Hollywood Reporter:

Gosling downplays his natural charisma here to portray a man simply intent on doing a job, approaching it with the utmost seriousness and without ego… Gosling pulls you in on an intimate level, whether Armstrong is tackling life-or-death situations midmission or simply staring at the moon from his backyard, as if the distant image somehow holds the secret to a successful landing. It’s a subdued, almost self-effacing performance that nonetheless provides the drama with a commanding center.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety:

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. … 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.

Michael Nordine, IndieWire:

Regarded as an egghead by his peers, Armstrong is a cerebral presence who wants to see beyond the known world even as he keeps his inner life to himself. That would pose more of a challenge to the actor had he not already made a habit of playing stone-faced (anti)heroes, and Gosling once again brings his quiet charisma to the role.

…as is Claire Foy as his wife Janet, though her talent might be slightly lost to a generic biopic wife black hole.

Stephanie Zacharek, TIME:

…played, with a great deal of astronaut-wife fortitude, by Claire Foy

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian:

a thankless role for Claire Foy

Michael Nordine, IndieWire:

… as is so often the case in movies of this sort, she’s relegated to simply being the concerned wife. Foy does her utmost to bring something new to that familiar role, though, imbuing it with a tenacity befitting her pedigree.

David Rooney, the Hollywood Reporter:

The latter is played by Claire Foy in an affecting performance that gracefully sidesteps cliche as she walks the line between being emotionally supportive and showing her own solid backbone and forthright, questioning nature.