'First Man' Captures The Upheaval Leading Up To Armstrong's 1969 Moon Landing

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This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "First Man" dramatizes the long buildup to the Apollo 11 moon landing from the perspective of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling. The ensemble cast also includes Claire Foy, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler. It's the latest picture from Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar two years ago for directing the musical "La La Land." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "First Man" might be one of the noisiest, clunkiest, most inelegant movies about space travel ever made, and I mean that in a good way. The film, adapted from James R. Hansen's biography of Neil Armstrong, returns us to a time when NASA technology was in its early stages. We first meet Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, as a test pilot in 1961 flying a small fighter jet over Southern California at an altitude of around 140,000 feet. The director, Damien Chazelle, doesn't give us anything so beautiful as an exterior shot of the plane soaring through the sky. He locks us inside the cockpit. The engine noise is deafening. The image is blurry and disorienting.

The tense close-ups of Armstrong's eyes and the rattling motions of the aircraft remind you of the irrationality of human flight, the sheer violence of defying the laws of physics. You learn a lot about Armstrong in this scene alone. He doesn't say much, and he's very, very good at his job. Even back on terra firma, the camera has a lingering case of the jitters. There's a hand-held roughness to the scenes of Neil at home with his wife, Janet, played by an excellent Claire Foy, and their children. Tragedy strikes early on. The Armstrongs lose their 2-year-old daughter, Karen, to cancer. Neil is devastated and throws himself into his work. Seeking a fresh start, he moves the family to Houston and enters NASA's Gemini astronaut training program.

Although gorgeously scored by Chazelle's longtime composer, Justin Hurwitz, "First Man" looks and sounds nothing like their musicals, "Whiplash" and "La La Land." But it has the same outsized ambition. The movie captures the flux and upheaval of the '60s, when NASA found itself caught between the pressures of the Cold War, with its mandate to beat the Russians by any means, and the resistance of a public unhappy with the program, which cost millions of taxpayer dollars and several astronauts' lives.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, Chazelle and his screenwriter, Josh Singer, set themselves the tricky task of dramatizing the inner life of an American hero known for his lack of flash or pretension. In one scene, Neil is interviewed by a NASA panel, and he responds to even a probing personal question in a stoic, professional way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST MAN")

RYAN GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) I don't know what space exploration will uncover, but I don't think it'll exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it'll be more of the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen in a long time ago but just haven't been able to until now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Does anyone have anything else?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah. Yeah. I was sorry to hear about your daughter.

GOSLING: I'm sorry. Is there a question?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What I mean is, do you think it will have an effect?

GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn't have some effect.

CHANG: Given how carefully Armstrong guarded his privacy, before and especially after the moon landing, there's something a bit invasive about the way "First Man" keeps returning to Karen's death, linking family tragedy and professional triumph. But for the most part, Chazelle and Gosling respect Armstrong's reticence, his unwillingness to speak unless absolutely necessary. His home life predictably suffers as he becomes emotionally withdrawn from Janet and their two sons. But he develops a balance of warm camaraderie and unspoken rivalry with his fellow pilots, played by actors including Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry and Christopher Abbott. Corey Stoll gives an amusingly loudmouth performance as Buzz Aldrin, with whom Neil will share his history-making Apollo 11 moment.

There were points in "First Man" when the disjointedness of the filmmaking drove me to distraction - the leaps forward in time, the twitchy close-ups, the stubborn refusal to let us get our bearings. But after a while, those surface ruptures begin to make dramatic and psychological sense. You come to understand what it must have been like to be Armstrong, thrown from one hurdle to the next, navigating endless chaos, losing friends and colleagues, plotting a course to the moon driven by little more than wild flights of risk and instinct.

Finally, July 1969 arrives, and Chazelle stages the moon landing with a stillness and sublimity that feels like both an antidote and an answer to all the preceding chaos. It's a sequence of hushed and otherworldly grandeur that demands to be seen in IMAX if possible. For several minutes, we really do seem to have left Planet Earth behind, transported to a landscape of dust, desolation and wonder.

Some dust was stirred up shortly after "First Man" premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where journalists noted that the movie didn't show the U.S. flag being planted on the moon's surface, a fact that quickly drew ire from conservative politicians. In fact, Chazelle does show the flag after it's been planted. He just doesn't treat the planting itself as a culmination point. He takes the moon landing, an achievement that might have been played for easy triumph, and turns it into one man's solemn personal reckoning, with all the sorrows, failures, sacrifices and convictions that have brought him to this extraordinary moment. We may not truly know Neil Armstrong by movie's end, but we know that his one small step contained multitudes.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. If you want to hear the interview we broadcast yesterday with the director and "First Man," Damien Chazelle, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.