To reach the pinnacle of outer space realism on the big screen these days, a lot rests on the film’s technical capabilities. From the stunning cinematography in 2013’s “Gravity,” the jaw-dropping special effects of 2014’s “Interstellar” or the impressive production design in 2015’s “The Martian,” moviegoers want to be transported from their theater seats to the farthest corners of the galaxy as effortlessly as possible.
Luckily, “First Man,” the biopic on NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who became the first man to ever step foot on the surface of the moon in 1969, is a commendable technical achievement. In the film, the anxiousness felt in the interiors of the aircraft or spaceflight simulator is pushed to the brink of chaos with handheld camerawork. It creates a dizzying sense of dread in the most intense and confined scenes.
Leading up to the successful Apollo 11 launch, “First Man” follows Armstrong as he prepares for whatever space mission he is assigned to next. Not only is it a journey of determination and strength, it’s also an exploration by Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) of the immeasurable losses that Armstrong experienced. This includes the passing of his two-year-old daughter in 1962 and the deaths of fellow space travelers (the three-man crew of Apollo 1 were killed in a fire during a spacecraft test in 1967).
Directed by Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), the first project of his young career that he didn’t actually write himself, the Oscar-winning filmmaker is at the top of his game as he takes viewers deep into the inner-workings of the space program, which at the time was beaten at every turn by the Soviets. Along with the radiant photography by Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) and the vintage visual style of Oscar-nominated production designer Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk”), it is Chazelle’s work behind the camera that will make the narrative resonate with audiences.
Like recent space films “Gravity” and “Moon,” “First Man” relies on intimate and uncomplicated storytelling. On occasion, Singer’s story feels as if it is taking place inside a silo and only breaks from those confines when we get an idea of how people outside of NASA are observing the historic events (“Apollo 13” was more effective in this respect). Gosling, maybe in an attempt to balance actress Claire Foy as outspoken first wife Janet, portrays Armstrong with understated confidence. The dynamic works for the most part, although Gosling isn’t given much external range.
Still, like the best cinematic space odysseys that have come before, “First Man” brings with it a message of humanism and mortality that puts life into perspective. What better backdrop to experience an existential awakening than soaring across the cosmos?