First Man has the right stuff indeed. The early reviews for Damien Chazelle's third feature are in, and by nearly all accounts, the La La Land director's nontraditional biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong's historic voyage to the moon is another giant leap forward in the director's burgeoning film career.
Given that moviegoers know the ending, Chazelle and his team, including star Ryan Gosling as the First Man himself, had their work cut out for them telling the story of the Apollo 11 mission and recapturing the sense of anxiety and suspense that hung over the entire planet during those eight fateful days in July 1969.
But based on the early raves, the filmmaker hit his mark and then some. First Man, which is based on the 2005 biography by James R. Hansen, has so far earned a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics showering particular praise on the movie's script and craftsmanship as well as Gosling's restrained performance as Armstrong.
Here's a sampling of the reviews:
"This sober, contemplative picture has emotional involvement, visceral tension and, yes, even suspense, in addition to stunning technical craft," writes The Hollywood Reporter, adding that "what is perhaps most notable is the film’s refusal to engage in the expected jingoistic self-celebration that such a milestone would seem to demand."
"It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: it has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet," hails The Guardian. "Gosling gives a performance of muscular intelligence and decency as Armstrong, a man of calm and restraint, lacking what no one in the 1960s called emotional intelligence."
On the other hand, while heralding the sense of "awe and bewilderment" First Man taps into, Digital Spy had a slight bone to pick: "Chazelle must be commended for avoiding overt patriotism throughout First Man, choosing instead to celebrate the moon landing with a more personal, melancholic take on one of America's greatest achievements that will resonate more with international audiences. At times though, this more measured approach threatens to halt the film's trajectory, steeping the film in mournful sadness."
"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," opined Indiewire, which described the film as "kind of first-person procedural, less concerned with the nuts and bolts of these undertakings than one man’s experience of them."
"First Man is so immersive in its glitchy, hurtling, melting-metal authenticity that it makes a space drama like Apollo 13 look like a puppet show," observed Variety.
While Time offered up a rare, but notable dissent: "This is a respectful movie, even a genuflecting one; there’s never a moment when Chazelle fails to let you know he’s doing important, valuable work. But that’s the problem: The movie feels too fussed-over for such a low-key hero. Its star, Ryan Gosling, turns in a discreet, sensitive performance, almost too sensitive for the movie around it."
No doubt audiences can judge for themselves. First Man blasts off into theaters nationwide on Oct. 12.