Armstrong biopic ‘First Man’ one giant step for cinema

‘First Man’ 

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke

Rated PG-13

Few moments in history compare to the journey of Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 in terms of the sheer magnitude of the accomplishment and the degree to which it has been ingrained into the collective human experience.

It is, then, no small thing to observe that "First Man," the searing epic chronicle of the man and that moment from the filmmaker Damien Chazelle ("La La Land"), makes it seem new again, emphasizing the extraordinary danger involved and the sheer unlikeliness of success.

The picture, an adaptation of the 2005 James R. Hansen biography, begins with Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) hurtling through the clouds in the X-15, bumping and shaking and lurching as the experimental aircraft probes the edges of the atmosphere.

It is an intense opening sequence and it drives home the essential truth that Armstrong and his revered colleagues did more than put their lives on the line for the sake of exploring a new frontier: They signed up for what by all accounts should have been death trips, in rocket-fueled tin cans that were only marginally suited for the tasks at hand.

The movie establishes a relentless commitment to this notion at its start and remains steadfast in its capturing of this existential truth for the astronauts. Training sessions are brutally taxing; wrenching technical malfunctions are an expected component of any journey; narrow escapes from mortal peril must be accepted as the cost of doing business in the cosmos.

Chazelle brings the movie a keen eye for immersive action, including a multitude of point-of-view shots and other techniques that aim to put the audience squarely into Armstrong’s perspective.

The approach strips away the mythology, cuts through the haze of nostalgia and rejects the romanticization with which this moment is most frequently regarded in the favor of a sense of visceral immediacy. It’s hard to spend too much time thinking about the wonder and the majesty of it all when you are forever an inch away from dying.

In one respect, it is hard to imagine how it has taken so long for a major Neil Armstrong biopic to hit the big screen. But he’s a less natural subject than one might think, given the man’s famously intense personality and steadfast seriousness.

Gosling plays him as a man of relatively few words with just a modicum of outward expressions, a loving father and husband anguished into a state of virtual stillness because of a personal tragedy. There is a robust inner life, of course, and Gosling is such a great actor, so good at injecting depth and meaning into a state of intense silence, that the performance has robust emotional texture.

There’s also a degree of sustained mystery to the character, he’s forever somewhere just outside our grasp, and with it the suggestion that the great unknown might not just be the moon and the stars, but ourselves.