'First Man' is a rocky voyage to the moon

Posted at 11:02 AM, Oct 12, 2018

Let the "Hey girl, let me take you to the moon" memes commence.

Blue Steel-flashing heartthrob Ryan Gosling reteams with his "La La Land" director, Damien Chazelle, for "First Man," an intense and blistering biopic of Neil Armstrong in his grueling, often lonely drive to become the first man to set foot on the satellite that has coaxed humankind to visit since the first caveman looked upward in the night sky.

If the movie's intent is to show just how difficult and arduous the voyage was, it succeeds. Far from the smooth, fast-paced rides of the Oscar darling Chezelle's previous work, including "Whiplash," "First Man" is a meticulous, visually stunning 360-degree look at the space race, honing in on Armstrong's personal perspective, as well as that of his dutiful yet understandably resentful wife, Janet Shearon (Claire Foy).  The upshot: To accomplish great things, great sacrifices must be made. 

This is no hagiography. Gosling's portrait of Armstrong is that of an often callous, unfeeling workaholic who often shunted off the affections of his family in favor of other needs -- sometimes work, other times petulant solitude. The same indifference distanced him from colleagues and superiors. Gosling's smoldering intensity is an unnervingly convincing a replication of Armstrong's demeanor.

The movie soars when it lifts off the ground, allowing the talented visual effects team to flex their muscles and show off bar-raising shots of test pilots screaming at Mach 3, rocket launches piercing the stratosphere and especially in the climactic payoff, as man takes his small step and mankind his great leap.

Chezelle sometimes loses grip on his narrative momentum as his story meanders among the numerous test missions, bureaucratic disputes and training missions Armstrong and his colleagues had to endure in order to reach toward the heights their collective obsession drove them toward.

A ruthless edit could have trimmed away some of the ancillary material and reshaped "First Man" into a leaner, more economical story flow that would have been truer to the spirit of the journey rather than wallowing in documentarian style detail. More story and less history would have made "First Man" seem like more of a thrill ride than homework. 

As it stands, "First Man" is a moon shot that feels a little too grounded for its own good.

RATING: 2.5 stars out of 4.