By Megan Bianco, San Clemente Times

With The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) setting the standard for perfect biopics on the U.S. space program, the pressure to live up to that high quality must be intimidating.

If anyone in modern Hollywood has the credit and chops to take on the challenge, it might be Damien Chazelle with First Man. 

He won Best Director at the Oscars two years ago for the musical La La Land, and before that received high praise for another music-oriented feature, Whiplash (2014). A bio-drama on real-life astronaut Neil Armstrong might not seem like an obvious follow-up, but it works.

Photo: Courtesy of Daniel McFadden/Universal Studiossal Studios
Photo: Courtesy of Daniel McFadden/Universal Studiossal Studios

In 1961, NASA engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is committed to helping the U.S. beat the Soviets at groundbreaking exploration in outer space. He is chosen to be the pilot of the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions not long after the tragic death of his 2-year-old daughter, Karen. For the next eight years, we see Armstrong face the dangers and setbacks of getting the spaceships off the ground and onto the moon.

Corey Stoll co-stars as fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Claire Foy is Neil’s wife, Janet, who tries to reel him in and not forget about his family on earth. First Man reunites Chazelle, Gosling and composer Justin Hurwitz after La La Land for some breathtaking 16mm and 70mm cinematography.

While The Right Stuff was exciting and Apollo 13 thrilling, the tone of Chazelle’s movie is surprisingly somber. The filmmakers remind us that while we made history, it was at the cost of lives in previous attempts. And, yes, the American flag is seen throughout the film.

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