First Man
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas
Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
2 hr. 21 min.

Neil Armstrong, 28-year-old American . . . standing on the surface of the moon!” On July 20, 1969, Walter Cronkite breathed these words, with amazement in his voice and tears in his eyes. To my 10-year-old self, they were as indelible as those spoken by the voice that followed, from that desolate lunar landscape: “That’s one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”

We would know little more about Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon. He never sought the spotlight, was regarded as diffident to some, distant to others. What First Man reveals is an astronaut of extreme focus, competence and bravery, who was processing tragedy, both private and public. It is a biopic that is as centered and spare as the man himself, its width and breadth as stark and beautiful as that lunar surface. It is in my opinion the best film of 2018, to date. A tale of triumph with a vestige of sadness.

Dazzlingly directed by Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and adapted for the screen by the gifted Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) from James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, First Man captures your attention from its opening seconds, when you’re in the cockpit of Armstrong’s X-15, scraping the edge of the atmosphere in 1961. The viewer stays riveted, engrossed for almost two and a half hours. It’s as if the film lifts off and hurtles like the Saturn V rocket itself.

Ryan Gosling embodies Armstrong as much as portrays him. All that the astronaut endures — losing his young daughter to cancer, the deaths of fellow astronauts and a terrifying close call aboard his first space flight, as commander of Gemini 8 — is painted in Gosling’s eyes and etched in the measurement of his voice. He is masterful.

As is Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet. Pain and love and fear streak her face. Her performance is powerful. The rest of the cast is peerless. Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, a former Mercury astronaut grounded by a heart murmur, now chief of flight crews. Corey Stoll is the brash Buzz Aldrin. Jason Clarke and Patrick Fugit are Ed White and Elliott See, doomed astronauts who were Armstrong’s closest friends during Project Gemini.

First Man is not just the story of the first man to walk on the moon. It is also a paean to courage, a celebration of an epoch, a tale about an American dream that came to fruition in spite of tragic setbacks such as the fire in Apollo 1’s capsule that took White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in 1967, and being repeatedly beaten, at the outset, by Soviet cosmonauts, who achieved milestones such as the first manned orbit of the planet, the first woman in space and the first spacewalk.

The movie is spellbinding. Beautifully photographed by Linus Sandgren, with astounding CGI and a soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz that’s striking and sanguine, with a few well-placed notes of melancholy.

Whether you were a space geek like I was as a kid, rising early to watch liftoffs or splashdowns on TV, you’ll find this film unique in its genre. First Man makes your heart pound and touches it almost simultaneously. We forgive Neil Armstrong that he was reticent to capitalize on his worldwide fame. That was not who he was. He was the right man with the right temperament and, yes, the Right Stuff, to be the First Man. This movie is a monument to Armstrong and to fantastic filmmaking.