‘First Man’ is a riveting history lesson carried by Gosling and Foy

Nearly 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) took one step onto the surface of the Moon and changed the space program-and the world-forever. At the time, nobody knew he was quietly getting the best of his inner demons.

Damien Chazelle’s riveting First Man takes you inside the eight year journey that started with a test crash in the desert and ended with a couple guys named Neil and Buzz taking a stroll.

Based off James R. Hansen’s book that documented the space mission team’s seemingly endless prep, many pitfalls, tragedies, and sacrifices along the way, Chazelle’s film is wildly intense for such a slow-burning story that operates on shaky cam, slow moments in between test launches, and allows for multiple characters to experience character development.

Gosling has given many good performances in his career, but inhabiting the restrained and subtle airspace of Armstrong and finding a way to tunnel into his struggle may be his best work yet. 98% of actors, even great ones, would have tried to ham up the dialogue, infuse the scenes with too much energy, and got away from the quiet, noble, yet haunted soul of the astronaut who took one giant step for mankind decades ago. Gosling keeps the burner low, builds the character from the inside out, and gives a career-best performance that should ring some Oscar bells.

As good as Gosling is as the title character, Claire Foy may be even better as Armstrong’s husband, Janet. The woman behind the heroic mind did most of the heavy lifting at home with their children, all the way wondering if Neil was going to survive this monstrous endeavor. Foy may have shot to fame with Downtown Abbey, but her 2018 is setting up to be one for the books. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, now First Man, and the upcoming Girl in the Spider’s Web. Foy’s laser stare and focused line reading here is never overplayed, more like breathed out towards other characters with a fair amount of fire. Overprotective of her husband’s sanity and her family’s future, Janet was the voice of reason throughout this period of ambition. It’s a performance with layers that unfolds as Armstrong and company build a staircase up.

Chazelle lines the closet of this film with a stellar supporting cast, including talents like Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Wingham, Patrick Fugit, and Pablo Schreiber. Corey Stoll creates a Buzz Aldrin that you will love to despise, but that’s the point. Every character here carries tension and torture in equal dose, due to the stakes at hand.

It wasn’t just about getting to the moon; there was a race between the United States and Russia to space. The actors wisely convey all the stress and let it bleed into their performances.

Chazell, working from a fine script by Josh Singer (adapted from the book), delicately builds the story from the inside out, starting with a tragedy in the Armstrong family, and using that as fuel for the story everyone knows. Without the kick, the historical occurrence that everyone knows about lacks conviction. When Armstrong gets up there, you’ll know how much it means to him by what he leaves behind as much as what he takes away from the momentous occasion.

If there is one thing that holds First Man back from true greatness, it’s the overall cold feeling that the movie gives off. Due to the manner with which the tale is spun, this is a movie that is easier to admire than love. Armstrong kept his family and friends at a distance, and the movie perfects a similar measure with the audience. You’ll fall in love with Justin Hurwitz’s resounding score and be marveled by the shaky cam that Chazelle uses, but it won’t bring the emotion too close for the manipulation to commence.

First Man earns its stripes by not only showing you the stars, but informing you how much they cost in lives, sweat, blood, and tears. An intense journey that keeps its distance, so the spectacle isn’t lost on moviegoers.

It’s the work from Foy and Gosling that really make this film something else.

You may think you know Neil Armstrong’s story, but First Man proves there was a lot more to the man than one trip way up north.

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