‘First Man’ review: Ryan Gosling’s intense performance carries movie

Nearly 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, we’re still fascinated by the first successful journey to our lone, cratered satellite. The immense difficulty, the science behind it, and perhaps most devastating of all, the loss of life in order to achieve it, haunts humanity to this day.

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In First Man, which feels more like a documentary or Neil Armstrong biopic, Canadian darling Ryan Gosling plays the astronaut, delivering a serious, nearly emotionless performance. Of course, Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon (hence the title), but few people know his story beyond his just-so crew cut and robotic demeanour.

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What is his story?

He’s a complex guy. Most interestingly, First Man‘s Armstrong comes across as a man who’s endured great pains, who suffered through the death of his toddler daughter, Karen, from a cancerous tumour. On top of that, Armstrong saw many of his colleagues die in the quest to reach the moon, and that undoubtedly weighed on him throughout his life. Often thought of as a strong, impenetrable rock of a man, it’s eyeopening to see this side.

Gosling, as usual, does an outstanding job inhabiting the character. Though there’s a lot of staring and very little emotion on display, sometimes that can actually be harder to portray, and he’s fantastic as the movie’s centrepiece.

Claire Foy from ‘The Crown’ is in this, too. Is she good?

We saw Foy tackle one of the hardest roles ever — Queen Elizabeth II — so this is a walk in the park, comparatively. With her British accent stifled, she plays Armstrong’s devoted (first) wife, Karen, who’s by his side through his test flights on the Gemini spacecraft and during his legendary Apollo 11 trip to the moon. While the screenwriter does his best to integrate the female side of things, it’s a tad shoehorned in.

This movie is a rocket party, no question about it. (Of course, in the 1960s, NASA had virtually no women on staff; at least, not outwardly visible or in the rocket control room or actual shuttle.) This is a true telling of history, so there is really no other way to wedge a woman in here, but Foy does her absolute best to deliver a powerful performance.

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Space movies can be boring. Is it?

While First Man doesn’t have the pep that a movie like fellow NASA/space film Hidden Figures does, it’s still fascinating. There are multiple white-knuckle sequences featuring Armstrong in space, and even though you know the outcome, palms still get sweaty and it’s nearly impossible to pry your eyes off the screen. One scene, in particular, made a woman in the audience gasp.

It’s truly remarkable that NASA managed to get this spacecraft to the moon in 1969, considering budgetary problems and the raucous counterculture being born in the U.S. at the time. The detail of being on the shuttle, including bolts creaking under pressure, condensation forming on windows and the ceaseless bangs and booms as the rocket goes through various stages on its flight, juxtaposed with the total silence of outer space, is masterful. No space scene is ever dull, though some of the Earthbound scenes could’ve been trimmed. (For an extra jolt of realism, see First Man in IMAX.)

So what’s the bottom line?

A biographical take on Neil Armstrong, First Man is an immersive journey to the moon and back. Space buffs especially will be blown away by the specificity and painstaking detail the production staff must’ve gone through to get this right. At the very least, it’s an informative look at the first human being on the moon and the staggering work — and sacrifice — it took for us to get there.

‘First Man’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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