Sometimes, when a filmmaker scores an Oscar for direction, he gets free reign on his next project; and this doesn’t always work out well (witness “Heaven’s Gate,” which ended the career of Best-Director winner Michael Cimino).
And then there are cases like Damien Chazelle, who has followed his 2016 win for “La La Land” with the rousing Neil Armstrong biopic “First Man” -- a movie that is wowing nationwide critics.
Audiences have been less rapturous -- perhaps because the “free-reign” issue results in a film that’s too long and slow.
This kind of thing has prevented many movies from being perfect -- but it rarely keeps one from being great. And “First Man” comes pretty close to greatness.
Ryan Gosling stars as the astronaut who put man’s first footprint on the moon five decades ago. What makes the movie work is its bracing reminder that despite the smoothness of the Apollo 11 mission, all these NASA pioneers were in constant danger, and many lost their lives.
In fact, Armstrong himself was in dire jeopardy no less than three times, including this movie’s slam-bang opening in 1961, when his experimental aircraft soared to nearly 30 miles after bouncing off the atmosphere while attempting reentry. As for the other harrowing events, I’ll leave you to learn about those on your own.
Suffice it to say that Chazelle and crew film these with a nerve-rattling camerawork, editing and special effects. In fact, the visuals in “First Man” are among the finest I’ve seen in any space picture. The CGI is virtually seamless, and the film deftly recalls old NASA footage of rockets blasting off and stages separating operatically in orbit. Plus, Chazelle really knows how to use the silence of space.
Wisely, the script by Josh Singer (who won an Oscar for 2015’s “Spotlight”) alternates between daring deadly danger and intimate moments involving Neil’s wife and their two boys -- as well as daughter Karen, who died at age two. The film shows Neil as a loving, grieving parent who nonetheless struggles to express his feelings -- even to his family. Singer frontlines this with brilliant effect when Armstrong finally steps on the moon and seems more intent on remembering his loved ones than contemplating the silvery lunar landscape.
“First Man” makes good use of a strong cast including Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham and Jason Clarke. It boasts first-rate photography by Luis Sandgren and an excellent score by Justin Hurwitz (both men worked with Chazelle on “La La Land”).
With its leaden pacing and excess length, “First Man” doesn’t quite constitute a “giant leap” for movie-kind; but in a tepid cinematic year, it’s a good deal bigger than “one small step.”
directed by Damien Chazelle
Run time: 141 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language