Director Damien Chazelle has delivered some of my favorite films the past few years, from his brutal, searing character study "Whiplash" to his modern take on the MGM Musical "La La Land", he's blazed a trail through different genres.
He continues that path with his new biography of Neil Armstrong and the space program, FIRST MAN.
A distant film brother of Philip Kaufman's rah-rah "The Right Stuff", its focus is a much more complicated man, whose life has somehow delivered him to be the right man for the first lunar mission.
Ryan Gosling (Drive, La La Land) has his most reserved role as Armstrong. We meet him as a young, happy civilian engineer, in love with his wife Janet and a new young family. Janet's really well played in the showier of the two roles by Claire Foy (The Crown). Their relationship is strained when their young daughter battles cancer and Armstrong finds respite in the space program, more at home at in a capsule than he is at the kitchen table.
The film pops fairly quickly through time, showing the very early days of the space program, the initial voyages of the Mercury program and eventually the Apollo missions.
The film is half quiet character study and half suspenseful action film as Armstrong and the NASA team forge new ground in their quest to reach the moon.
These guys have incredible courage and bravery and Chazelle never pulls back from showing their patriotism, their passion and commitment.
Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Chappaquiddick) is terrific as Ed White, Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves) is a great Ed Lovell, Corey Stoll (The Strain) is hilarious as the brash, loud motormouth Buzz Aldrin and Kyle Chandler (Super 8, Friday Night Lights) is Deke Slayton, the man everyone wants at the helm at Mission Control.
The special effects are perfect and the sound design steals the show. Chazelle is determined to show you space in the most realistic light since Kubrick's "2001" 50 years ago. The silence of space is almost as deafening in its power as the massive thrusters that lift the rockets off the launch pad.
Chazelle has said that he wanted the scenes on the moon to be like the moment Dorothy opens the door in OZ, with that film's pop from black and white box screen to wide screen color.
He and sound designers led by Phil Barrie (Max Max:Fury Road, Passengers) have created that same moment, dropping you onto a lunar landscape that you'll remember from all that grainy live black and white footage, but rendered down to the simplest grain.
FIRST MAN made me want to do what all great biographies do, read more about this quiet, complicated American hero who wanted no part of personal fame.
Gosling's Armstrong has two quiet moments near the end of the film, one on the moon and one upon his return, that probably tell you more about him that any dialogue could.
Chazelle's choice to close the movie with these quiet moments, versus the bombast and triumph of "The Right Stuff"s final moments or "Apollo 13"s celebratory conclusion feels right for Armstrong and the story that precedes it.
Thoughtful, suspenseful, loaded with great acting and special effects, FIRST MAN is a great character study masquerading as a thriller.
Chazelle nails it again and gets an A-.