After The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and countless fictional astronaut dramas, it's surprising that Neil Armstrong, history's most famous spaceman, hadn't been the subject of a Hollywood biopic until now. But after seeing First Man, a painstakingly accurate, vérité-style account of Armstrong's life and career between 1961 and 1969, I can see why: Armstrong, who passed away in 2012, was so private and deadpan that he doesn't cut a traditionally heroic figure. Considering his remarkable achievements, one could argue that he was, frankly, a bit of a bore.
That's not to say that First Man is boring – though it is, at times – but Damien Chazelle, working from Josh Singer's no-nonsense screenplay (based on Armstrong's authorized biography), sees no reason to glamorize his protagonist. And so he cast his La La Land star Ryan Gosling, who does laconic better than anyone, in the role. What follows is a you-are-there account of Armstrong's triumphs and tribulations, as he climbs the ranks from test pilot to Gemini astronaut to commander of the Apollo 11 mission. Gosling doesn't talk much, but he sure is rattled around a lot in rickety, frightfully primitive spacecraft.
First Man excels at showing us just how perilous those early years at NASA really were. It doesn't shy away from the numerous astronaut deaths that occurred, and there's an almost fetishistic focus on the literal nuts and bolts of the Gemini (here pronounced "Jeminny") and Apollo spacecraft. You watch the film and think, first, that Armstrong and his colleagues were nuts to climb inside those clunky little vehicles and get shot off into space, and second, how incredible it is that those vehicles not only made it to the moon, but returned their inhabitants safely to Earth.
Chazelle and Singer try to balance out all the hardware-and-physics wonkiness with scenes of Armstrong's home life, giving his wife Janet (Claire Foy) more screen time than astronaut wives typically see in the movies. They also emphasize the one event that could show Neil Armstrong's emotional side: the death of his two-year-old daughter Karen, of cancer-related pneumonia, in 1962. As a recurring motif, it sometimes doesn't work – I don't like scenes where otherwise sane characters hallucinate their dead children and lose themselves in flashbacks, as Armstrong does here – but without this backstory, Gosling's Armstrong would be a cold fish indeed.
At its best, First Man is an exciting, gut-churning tribute to astronauts, with a wonderful score by Chazelle's pet composer Justin Hurwitz, a dozen familiar faces in the cast, and note-perfect period authenticity. But it's a bit overlong, and mostly I wound up feeling bad for NASA that they didn't pick a more vivacious character to be the first man on the moon.