First Man [2018] ★★★½

You’d think a movie about Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, would be your typical Hollywood blockbuster. That’s where director Damien Chazelle steps in, by making this trip to the moon a personal journey, fueled with superior performances, beautiful cinematography, and a quietly profound score by Justin Hurwitz. Chazelle and Hurwitz worked together before on “Whiplash” and “La La Land“, and they’ve scored another knockout with “First Man”. Is it a space travel movie? Yes, in the broadest sense, but it’s the fundamental human story that matters most. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as Armstrong, and Claire Foy is equally good as his loving wife. Having witnessed the death of their child early on, it is essential that we identify with these characters and connect with their roller-coaster of emotions. Chazelle recounts all the events leading up to the moon landing, and although we already know the outcome, it still feels fresh, and quite spectacular. Plus the two actors could not be better. Foy’s quietly devastating performance is further proof of her talent. And Gosling gets under the skin of a man still grieving the death of his child, but who is still determined to aim for the sky. It’s a beautiful performance, and he nails every vulnerable nuance of this conflicted man. And so “First Man”, following the lead of so many great space movies, emerges as one of the most moving films of the year. Why? Because as Apollo 11 prepares to land on the moon, we never lose sight of what’s human and striving behind the helmet. That’s one small step for Damien Chazelle, and a giant leap for his career.

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