The space stuff is great. When La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s biopic about Neil Armstrong focuses on NASA’s insanely ambitious and dangerous plan to put a man on the moon, it thrums with thrill and threat—from the astonishing scope of space to the claustrophobic confines of the command module, the best parts of First Man are worth experiencing on the biggest screen possible. Ryan Gosling offers an excellent turn as Armstrong, but even Gosling can’t liven up the story’s more pedestrian elements, which largely involve Armstrong’s relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and his stoic mourning of his daughter. These chunks have little of the verve and punch that Chazelle delivers whenever he crams a camera into the cockpit with Gosling—speeding through the atmosphere, spinning in space, flipping switches as strained bolts groan—or visits Armstrong’s fellow astronauts and scientists (played by a fantastic lineup of underused actors, including Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, and Coach Taylor). First Man bears the familiar curse of the biopic—it somehow feels both overlong and unsatisfying—and never quite escapes the shadow of The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s remarkable 1983 film that told a similar story with more grace and smarts. Still: the space stuff is great.
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