First Man ★★★★

Damien Chazelle’s 'La La Land' follow-up opens with an assault of sight and sound – no title cards, no geography, no real explanation of what we’re looking at, aside from the terror of nearly crashing. That sequence is like a code key to the movie, which is by definition a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. But this isn’t a traditional biopic; it’s all about perspective, all seen from his point of view, less concerned with history of that mission’s impact than with what it was like to be him. And he doesn’t exactly let you in – this guy was the very definition of the strong, silent type, and star Ryan Gosling leans into that squareness, daring us to peer in to his up-tight close-ups and find the guy inside.

Because of that, the climactic dramatization of the moon landing proper is not what we’ve come to expect from a movie like this. There are none of the standbys: no coverage of mission control, no shots of the crying spouses, no archival footage of Walter Cronkite. It’s just there with him, in the moment, an iconic snapshot of history rendered newly immediate by this approach. And that approach to the event is why the nonsensical controversy surrounding the film is so absurd; the kind of Michael Bay/Peter Berg, plant-the-flag-as-the-music-swells imagery these people seem to long for would stick out like a sore thumb. Why, it’s almost as though people who haven’t seen a film shouldn’t criticize it.