Neil Armstrong prepares for a date with destiny.
First Man “might be the most grounded space movie ever made,” said David Edelstein in NYMag.com. A “stupendous” Neil Armstrong biopic that focuses on the eight years leading up to the astronaut’s walk on the moon, it’s laborious in the best sense—immersing us in the hard work of preparing to do the impossible. From the “gut-churning” opening sequence, which dramatizes a 1961 test flight, we’re also primed to experience, as our hero does, the mission’s razor-thin margin of error. Ryan Gosling’s admirable performance turns out to be “almost too sensitive for the movie around it,” said Stephanie Zacharek in Time. His Armstrong remains so preternaturally calm, distant, and analytical that dramatic tension sometimes has to be conveyed with jiggling cameras. The screenplay ties Armstrong’s stoicism to his losing a 2-year-old daughter to a brain tumor in 1962, and the repeated attempts to remind us of his sorrow and shortcomings as a husband and father “made me feel protective, posthumously, of Armstrong’s emotional privacy.” But as the film speeds toward the climax we know is coming, it transcends its pat psychologizing, said A.A. Dowd in AVClub.com. When Armstrong takes his fabled first step onto the dusty lunar surface, there are no cutaways to mission control, no swelling orchestral strings—only silence. “For a few beautiful minutes, it’s just Neil, the majesty of the galaxy, and the thoughts the film leaves unsaid.”