First Man ★★★★


The 1950s - 70s heyday of the United States’ manned space program has been a relatively successful (if strangely infrequent) source of compelling cinematic stories, inspiring both rousing dramas ('The Right Stuff' [1983], 'Apollo 13' [1995]) and engrossing documentaries ('For All Mankind' [1989], 'In the Shadow of the Moon' [2007]). The saga of America’s feverish mid-century push into the unforgiving void of space is so fascinating – and so improbable – all on its own, a filmmaker could be forgiven for taking the easy route and leaning into the story’s inherent grandeur and triumphalism. This makes it especially impressive that director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer have taken such a non-intuitive approach with 'First Man', a harrowing, brooding dramatization of Neil Armstrong’s journey from test pilot to historical immortality. Armstrong, after all, was a notoriously private individual, a man whose humility, reticence, and level-headedness – his terminal *blandness*, one might say – were precisely the qualities that prompted NASA to select him for the command of the Apollo 11 mission.

Such characteristics are not normally the stuff of captivating cinematic heroes. However, rather than crafting a rip-roaring space adventure that would sharply clash with his subject’s personality, Chazelle has instead fashioned his film *around* Armstrong’s renowned opacity. Admittedly, Singer’s screenplay indulges in some glib armchair psychoanalysis. The death of the Armstrongs’ two-year-old daughter Karen by a malignant tumor is portrayed as *the* seminal event in the man’s personal life, a bottled-up dose of radioactive grief he figuratively and literally carries to the moon’s surface. For the most part, however, 'First Man' depicts Armstrong as an inhumanly stoic individual, possessing both adamantine focus and a sphinxlike inscrutability. Chazelle has accordingly constructed a defiantly clenched and suffocating story that harmonizes with that characterization. In the director’s conception, the space race becomes a cramped, hellish ordeal of rattling terror, physical agony, and outright blood sacrifice. When the audience is allowed glimpses of the humbling majesty of space, it's mostly in fleeting faceplate reflections and though tiny, fogged-up windows – until the film’s breathtaking climax, when the weight of all that suffering is expelled in a rush with the opening of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module hatch...

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