Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man has launched with glowing reviews at the Venice International Film Festival.
Previously announced as the Oscar-positioning event’s opening night selection, the film sees Gosling reuniting with his La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle for a dramatic retelling of the pioneering astronaut’s life, and the first reactions from movie critics have provided a crucial, sturdy foundation for the film’s impending awards season run.
“This is a strikingly intelligent treatment of a defining moment for America that broadens the tonal range of Chazelle, clearly a versatile talent, after Whiplash and La La Land,” writes The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney, further praising the film’s “refusal to engage in the expected jingoistic self-celebration” that celebrating Armstrong’s first-man-on-the-moon milestone could have registered.
“Gosling downplays his natural charisma here to portray a man simply intent on doing a job, approaching it with the utmost seriousness and without ego. Armstrong shows zero willingness to consider what he’s doing in any self-aggrandizing historical context, his taciturn demeanor proving frustrating to the press, who want uplifting soundbites. That makes the characterization almost antithetical to the standard Hollywood conception of a historically significant figure of this type,” he continues. “Instead, Gosling pulls you in on an intimate level, whether Neil is tackling life-or-death situations mid-mission or simply staring at the moon from his backyard, as if the distant image somehow holds the secret to a successful landing. It’s a subdued, almost self-effacing performance that nonetheless provides the drama with a commanding center.”
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw similarly heralds Gosling’s work, calling his lead performance one of “muscular intelligence and decency,” while pegging the film as a “mostly soaring” effort overall, and Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman similarly heralds the project as “turbulently spectacular” and a “docudrama in the most authentic and exciting sense of the word” through Chazelle’s “audacious strategy…. to make a movie so revelatory in its realism, so gritty in its physicality, that it becomes a drama of thrillingly hellbent danger and obsession.”
“Wisely, Chazelle has opted to leave spectacle to the blockbusters and instead aims for awe – which is related, but different, and harder to pull off. The former shows you something you haven’t seen before. The latter involves showing you something you see every day from a perspective that makes it newly strange. First Man chases awe from its 1961-set opening sequence, in which Armstrong, then a government test pilot, flies an experimental X-15 aircraft high enough for the ship to “bounce off the atmosphere” on its descent,” The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin adds. “Chazelle has always specialised in virtuoso endings, and his sure hand and sharp eye brings this ambitious character study smoothly into land.”
Also starring Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Cory Michael Smith, and Jason Clarke, the film follows Armstrong’s career through to his groundbreaking July 20, 1969 mission which led him to become the first man to walk on the moon. The project has long been considered a potential awards contender, given the pedigree of those working on the film. Gosling of course has two Oscar nods to his name, while Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer both have Academy Award statuettes under their belt.
Chazelle previously told EW he shot the earth-based scenes for the film before moving on to the complex, orchestrated flight sequences featuring Gosling inside full-scale replicas of Armstrong’s space capsules. To further immerse his cast, Chazelle even mounted LED screens outside the structures that played footage of what the trio of astronauts would have seen along their journey.
“Even though they were the three selected to be on this historic mission, there were 400,000 people who had made this possible,” Gosling added. “They were the final ones to execute it, but you get a sense from the astronauts that no one wanted to be the one that was the weak link.”
Pending the reception of Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, First Man is shaping up to be Universal’s only major awards bid this year. It is next scheduled to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, with a potential Telluride screening on the table for Labor Day weekend (that festival does not make its official lineup announcement until the day before it kicks off).
First Man opens Oct. 12 in theaters. Read on for more reviews from Venice, which runs now through Sept. 8, and is set to include screenings of other high profile productions like Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, and Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical return to directing since 2013’s Gravity.
Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“Gosling gives a tricky, compelling performance that grows on you. He plays Armstrong as a brainy go-getter who has learned to hold most of what he feels inside (he wrote musicals in college, and is now ashamed of it). Yet he lets out just enough emotion, especially when someone crosses him, to exude a quiet command…. Gosling makes Armstrong a figure of intensely contained devotion and can-do moxie whose ability to guide a ship, especially when it’s at death’s door, is the essence of grace under pressure.”
Jessica Kiang (The Playlist)
“Steering an astonishingly accomplished path between the small steps and the giant leaps of the Apollo 11 mission, reigning Best Director Damien Chazelle opens the 75th Venice Film Festival with First Man, an immersive, immaculately crafted, often spectacular and satisfyingly old-fashioned epic that may well become the definitive moon-landing movie.”
Robbie Collin (The Telegraph)
“It also gives an emotional undertow to the moon landing finale itself – which, it is implied, gives Armstrong the literally unearthly perspective required to process his heartbreaking loss. The less said in advance about this staggering sequence the better, other than that it crackles with eeriness and wonder, looks utterly real, and is the reason to see First Man on the biggest cinema screen you can find.”
Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“A more questioning or nuanced movie might have placed the moon landing halfway through the story and then focused on the long, mysterious and anti-climactic nature of Armstrong’s life on earth. Chazelle – understandably – makes the moon landing the climax and the glorious main event. 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. There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realising what that represents.”
Michael Nordine (IndieWire)
“You already know how First Man ends. It’s been nearly half a century since man walked on the moon, and nearly as long since space exploration was at the forefront of America’s collective imagination, which is to say that Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land has more challenges to contend with than it might initially appear. They’re easily overcome: First Man is an anti-thriller of rare intensity, with lived-in performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy heightening the sky-high drama at every turn. It’s not a comprehensive look at the Apollo 11 mission, but revisits that famous story from a more intimate angle, even as it delivers a satisfying ride.”
David Rooney (The Hollywood Reporter)
“There can be no doubt concerning the ultimate outcome of Damien Chazelle’s drama about NASA’s 1969 Apollo 11 mission, which made history by putting astronauts on the Moon after a series of trial-and-error attempts. It’s implicit in the title, First Man. So it’s a credit to the filmmakers and to lead actor Ryan Gosling’s thoughtfully internalized performance as Neil Armstrong that this sober, contemplative picture has emotional involvement, visceral tension, and yes, even suspense, in addition to stunning technical craft.”