'First Man': What the Critics Are Saying

Critics praise Ryan Gosling's performance, but lament Claire Foy's limited role as "the concerned wife."

The reviews for First Man are in from the Venice International Film Festival, suggesting that the movie is a serious awards contender.

Damien Chazelle's latest, which stars Ryan Gosling as moon-walking pioneer Neil Armstrong, opened the 75th annual Italian fest Wednesday. Penned by Spotlight and The Post scribe Josh Singer, the film offers a look at Armstrong's life and the events that led up to his landmark space mission July 20, 1969. 

In addition to Gosling, Claire Foy co-stars as Neil's wife, Janet; Christopher Abbott plays astronaut Dave Scott; Ciaran Hinds is NASA flight director and manager Gene Kranz; Kyle Chandler is chief of the astronaut office Deke Slayton; and Jason Clarke plays NASA astronaut Ed White, the first man to walk in space .

In The Hollywood Reporter, critic David Rooney praises Gosling's "thoughtfully internalized performance as Neil Armstrong" and labels the film a "sober, contemplative picture [with] emotional involvement, visceral tension, and yes, even suspense, in addition to stunning technical craft."

"This is a strikingly intelligent treatment of a defining moment for America that broadens the tonal range of Chazelle, clearly a versatile talent, after Whiplash and La La Land," Rooney writes. "What’s perhaps most notable is the film’s refusal to engage in the expected jingoistic self-celebration that such a milestone would seem to demand. At a time when the toxic political climate has cheapened that kind of nationalistic fervor, turning it into empty rhetoric, the measured qualities of Josh Singer’s screenplay, based on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography of Armstrong, are to be savored."

Rooney also notes Foy's portrayal of Janet Armstrong, calling it an "affecting performance that gracefully sidesteps cliche as she walks the line between being emotionally supportive and showing her own solid backbone and forthright, questioning nature."

Technically, Rooney also lauds the "tendency to favor focused understatement over showiness (that) carries through into the period work of production designer Nathan Crowley and costumer Mary Zophres" as well as "the quiet majesty" of "Justin Hurwitz’s masterful score, from tender, melodic passages through echoes (intended?) of vintage Jerry Goldsmith to a rare burst of full-thrust power when the lunar surface is first glimpsed up close. The archival version of that visual is embedded in countless memories, as Armstrong’s footprint marks the first human contact with the moon’s powdery surface. The magic of Chazelle’s fine film is that it allows us to share directly in that momentous discovery."

In The Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw praises the film's execution but questions the point of it all. "It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: It has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet," Bradshaw writes. "There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realizing what that represents."

Bradshaw also salutes Gosling's performance, writing that he "gives a performance of muscular intelligence and decency as Armstrong, a man of calm and restraint, lacking what no one in the 1960s called emotional intelligence." 

However, Bradshaw takes issue with the film's central focus on the race to get to the moon without examining less-examined aspects of Armstrong's life. "The film’s narrative direction takes us away from the difficulty to the great sublime moment, and then … it’s over. The ending has a resounding impact, but does raise the question: What was the point?" Bradshaw writes. In comparison to recent space films like Hidden Figures that are about more than just the grandeur of the galaxy, First Man "is almost in danger of being overawed by the sheer central importance of what it is about."

Indiewire's Michael Nordine is also impressed by the film's technical prowess, calling the first scene of the film  "so intense you’ll find yourself thinking — or at least hoping — it must be some pre-mission anxiety dream." Indeed, though most Americans with an elementary-level education know how this story ends, Nordine insists the film "isn’t fun so much as nerve-racking."

Nordine registers some disappointment that Foy's Janet is "relegated to simply being the concerned wife," though he says she brings a "tenacity" to the role. Overall, the critic counts First Man as a successful historical film: "Chazelle is an adept flight commander, guiding the action with the elegance of a space dance in one scene and the intensity of a rocket launch in the next. Those two modes combine for a powerful experience that will inspire renewed awe of what Armstrong and his ilk did."

David Lister of The Independent writes, "The tension is constant, and told not through the usual paraphernalia of space movies, but often through Gosling’s face. It is almost expressionless. Almost. The barest sign of a tremor around his mouth, or a sign of hope or fear in his piercing blue eyes convey a great deal."

Lister notes that Foy "is an exquisite study in 1960s American housewife acceptance. Acceptance of her husband’s refusal to communicate with her or their children properly, especially after the death of their young daughter." In addition to his praise for the film's stars, Lister toasts Chazelle's work behind the camera: "In a film that has the moon landing and multiple rocket launches, he resists the obvious temptation to rely on technical wizardry. This is a human story, remarkably well told."

Time's Stephanie Zacharek calls the director's film "a respectful movie, even a genuflecting one; there’s never a moment when Chazelle fails to let you know he’s doing important, valuable work." But she takes issue with this tone, writing, "The movie feels too fussed-over for such a low-key hero," and that shaky camerawork and close-ups are often used to try to dress up ultimately "no-biggie events."

Zackarek does praise how tense the movie makes moments leading up to the climactic lunar landing, but squirms at some of the more emotional scenes in the film dealing with the death of Armstrong's daughter at age 3. "In 2018, we generally feel bad for men who can’t express their emotions, and most of us are rightly happy that more men have learned it’s OK to do so. But does it really serve men of Armstrong’s generation to have young filmmakers applying Psych 101 principles to their emotions some 60 years after the fact?" she writes.

Nicholas Barber of the BBC refers to the film as "an understated, economical drama which, like a rocket that has to escape from the Earth’s gravity, jettisons absolutely everything it doesn’t need."

Barber highlights both Gosling and Foy, saying the actors' "performances in First Man are probably too unshowy to win awards. But they should, because they could hardly have been bettered. The same goes for the whole of this extraordinary film."

Financial Times' Raphael Abraham gives the film three out of five stars, stating, "First Man’s startling opening suggests an immersive, visceral thrill-ride, a cosmic Dunkirk, but it soon settles into the more cosy filmic furniture of the biopic.

"Chazelle keeps the focus firmly on Armstrong," Abraham continues. "There are fleeting references to the Vietnam War and civil rights protests ('I can’t pay no doctor bills but Whitey’s on the moon'), yet the Whiplash director’s primary fascination remains the single-minded obsessions of men."

Of this latter fact, Abraham notes Foy's performance and the actress's lack of deep material to work with. "Foy is no pushover but mostly she wears the brave face of the long-suffering spouse, and the closest she gets to any real dissent is barking: 'You’re just a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood.' " Overall, Abraham sees the film as a bit of a mixed bag: "With First Man, his fourth film, Chazelle (still only 33) has genre-hopped competently once more. He has by no means burnt up on re-entry into the Venice competition but he hasn’t quite set it alight either."

The movie will be released in theaters by Universal in October.

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