You already know how “First Man” ends. It’s been nearly half a century since man walked on the moon, and nearly as long since space exploration was at the forefront of America’s collective imagination, which is to say that Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land” has more challenges to contend with than it might initially appear. They’re easily overcome: “First Man” is an anti-thriller of rare intensity, with lived-in performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy heightening the sky-high drama at every turn. It’s not a comprehensive look at the Apollo 11 mission, but revisits that famous story from a more intimate angle, even as it delivers a satisfying ride.
It begins with a flight sequence so intense you’ll find yourself thinking — or at least hoping — it must be some pre-mission anxiety dream, with Neil Armstrong’s (Gosling) rickety deathtrap ascending higher into the atmosphere than planned before falling back to earth. The sound is deafening, the view dizzying. It’s an arresting opener, not least for the ways it instantly reminds us that this is indeed life or death: Apollo 11 may have been a success, but it was preceded by many lethal failures. Space Force notwithstanding, we tend not to look at the night sky the way we used to; Chazelle restores some of that wonder.
The 33-year-old, who introduced himself to the most viewers in breakneck fashion with “Whiplash” before winning Best Director (and, for a brief, mistaken moment, Best Picture) for “La La Land,” seems intent on one-upping himself with each new project. Like Armstrong, he thrives under pressure: “First Man” is well crafted and tightly controlled, adapting to extreme situations on the fly and forcing us to experience every death-defying feat along with the astronauts who lived through them — and, in some cases, didn’t.
Regarded as an egghead by his peers, Armstrong is a cerebral presence who wants to see beyond the known world even as he keeps his inner life to himself. That would pose more of a challenge to the actor had he not already made a habit of playing stone-faced (anti)heroes, and Gosling once again brings his quiet charisma to the role. Neil’s silent determination is ever present, but it’s his grief that most defines him. His young daughter dies of cancer in the film’s opening minutes, and hers isn’t the only death he’s haunted by: He was the first man on the moon, of course, but he wouldn’t have been had several of his friends not died trying.
Gosling, who at times has seemed reluctant to step into traditional leading roles in favor of divisive auteur projects like “Only God Forgives” and “Song to Song,” has already made two films apiece with both Derek Cianfrance and Nicolas Winding Refn. Chazelle is now his most high-profile collaborator, and one hopes that their partnership doesn’t end here — the two bring out the best in one another, and a third mission together could be the charm.
It’s been something of an annus mirabilis for Foy, whose lauded two-season arc on “The Crown” also led to leading roles in this year’s “Unsane” and the upcoming “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” Though it may be difficult for royalists to see her without her accent or her crown, the Brit is as American as apple pie here — even if, as is so often the case in movies of this sort, she’s relegated to simply being the concerned wife. Foy does her utmost to bring something new to that familiar role, though, imbuing it with a tenacity befitting her pedigree.
“It’ll be an adventure,” she tells her husband after he’s chosen for the Apollo program, though she’s only partially right: “First Man” is full of derring-do, but it isn’t fun so much as nerve-racking. Gosling and Foy manage to find grace notes in the couple’s home life — it’s easier to return when you have something to return to, after all — but his head is in the clouds even when he’s earthbound.
Chazelle is so successful at putting you inside the cold, claustrophobic spacecraft Neil never truly leaves — we’re often just inches away from his face, whether behind a visor or not — that we’re sometimes at sea when it comes to understanding what exactly these men are doing and why it’s so important. If you’d like to know the exact purpose of the Gemini 8 mission, look it up beforehand — “First Man” won’t tell you. It’s a kind of first-person procedural, less concerned with the nuts and bolts of these undertakings than one man’s experience of them.
That ultimately works in the film’s favor, especially as we already have movies like “Apollo 13” and Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” to offer a more historical perspective. 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. It may not be a giant leap for filmmaking, but it’s another small step for this filmmaker.
“First Man” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Universal Pictures will release it on October 12.