Neil Armstrong, apparently, was a man of few words.
Director Damien Chazelle emphasizes that in “First Man” with long stretches of silence – moments that help depict the isolation he must have felt as the first man to walk on the moon.
While the film thrives on closeups (this may well be the first space film that’s OK to watch on a cellphone), it peaks with select moments that are telling.
When Armstrong’s sons are told he’s going to be in isolation after returning from the moon, one asks, “Does this mean you won’t be able to see me swim?”
When his wife Janet insists he tell them there’s a distinct possibility they won’t see him again, he struggles for words.
Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy (as Neil and Janet) seize on those scenes to create characters that are real and immediate. She comes off as naggy; he seems distant. Both stances help convey just how small the world of astronauts was and what it took for them to take those leaps of faith.
The death of a daughter resonates, particularly when Armstrong has a moment of solitude on the moon.
Chazelle, adept at pairing sound with editing (or no sound, in some cases) puts us in the center of the action and shows just how perilous the space program was. He drops hints that it was hardly unchallenged by government officials or citizens who thought the money might have been better spent on something else.
Glimpses of other astronauts glide in and out but few have the staying power of Armstrong and the two who joined him on that first mission to the moon. Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) comes off as a gregarious salesman, able to give reporters the kind of quotes they seek. Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) is the worker bee making sure all goes right while they’re on the historic walk.
Kyle Chandler gets good screen time as Deke Slayton, the program’s leader who often delivers news in the men’s room.
The film, though, boils down to the Armstrong family dynamic. Foy – who’s quite good – isn’t always the supportive spouse. She questions the risks and isn’t about to let Neil off the hook when he has no answers.
There’s electricity in their scenes. But there’s also a pop when Gosling looks like he’s riding a poorly made carnival attraction. He doesn’t get the moments that add up to a Best Actor Oscar, but he’s good at playing the silence.
Justin Hurwitz’s score adds to the impression, reinforcing a reporter’s claim that these are “sailors in the sky.”
“First Man” never hints at life after a walk on the moon. But it’s clear Armstrong’s life changed drastically. Something that monumental doesn’t go unnoticed, even if it occurs far from home in a place few have been.
His is a trek worth remembering.