CHAZELLE’S ‘First Man’

IS AT ONCE IN­TI­MATE AND GRAND

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Film - Pho­tos: Univer­sal Pic­tures via AP Re­view: Jo­ce­lyn Noveck AP Na­tional Writer

Nearly a half-cen­tury has passed since the ma­jes­tic mo­ment when Neil Arm­strong stepped care­fully onto the lunar land­scape, left foot first, tak­ing that gi­ant leap for mankind. Whether you were alive then and glued to the TV, or re­lived it later through that iconic, grainy NASA footage, what you prob­a­bly re­mem­ber is just that: The majesty. You’re prob­a­bly not think­ing much about the deafen­ing noise, the claus­tro­pho­bia, the ter­ror of blast­ing off in a rick­ety sar­dine can that could fail at any mo­ment for any of a thou­sand rea­sons. Or the fact that Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin could have ended up stranded, left to die on the moon; Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon had a speech ready for that dark sce­nario. You will, though, be think­ing of these things as you watch “First Man,” the lat­est in­stall­ment in direc­tor Damien Chazelle’s me­te­oric ca­reer — and sorry for the space pun, but it’s en­tirely apt. An in­ti­mate char­ac­ter study that some­how be­comes grand just when it needs to, “First Man,” based on the book by James R. Hansen with a script by Josh Singer, is a wor­thy suc­ces­sor not only to Chazelle’s “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” but to the as­tro­naut films that pre­cede it, like “Apollo 13” and es­pe­cially “The Right Stuff.” It’s also, amaz­ingly, the first fea­ture film about Arm­strong. Chazelle’s part­ner

here is Ryan Gosling, who di­als down his ob­vi­ous star wattage to give an in­ter­nal­ized, fully com­mit­ted per­for­mance as the “re­luc­tant hero,” as Arm­strong’s own fam­ily de­scribed him. Gosling’s task here is not merely to give di­men­sion to a myth­i­cal Amer­i­can hero. He also has to play a man who fa­mously kept his emo­tions in check. That may not be an as­set for a movie char­ac­ter, but sure was an as­set for the first hu­man to set foot on an­other world. And that’s be­cause this stuff was, well, ter­ri­fy­ing! We be­gin in 1961, dur­ing Arm­strong’s test pi­lot days. Tak­ing a hy­per­sonic X-15 up for a spin, he’s sud­denly in trou­ble; he can’t get back down. “Neil, you’re bounc­ing off the at­mos­phere,” comes the rather con­cerned voice from be­low. He makes it back, though, barely break­ing a sweat. As for us, we’re ir­re­triev­ably rat­tled. From the heav­ens we go to a small home of­fice, where Arm­strong is on the phone, try­ing to find help for his tod­dler daugh­ter, ill with can­cer. His grief over her fate will re­main a theme of the film un­til the end. But it re­mains un­spo­ken, even to his stoic wife, Janet, played here with sub­tlety and grit by the won­der­ful Claire Foy. Seek­ing a fresh start, Arm­strong be­comes an as­tro­naut in NASA’s Gemini pro­gram. On Gemini 8, he suc­cess­fully docks his space­craft with an­other be­fore suf­fer­ing a har­row­ing in-flight emer­gency. The split-sec­ond that sep­a­rates giddy suc­cess from ter­ri­fy­ing fail­ure, the tiny, claus­tro­pho­bic spa­ces, the flimsy ma­te­ri­als, the shak­ing, the roar­ing, the pos­i­tively an­cient-look­ing tech­nol­ogy — Chazelle il­lus­trates all of this, in­deli­bly. And we’re forced to won­der: How did they ever make it into space even once? On the ground, mean­while, we see what it’s like to be a loved one. Dur­ing Gemini, Janet ex­plodes at Arm­strong’s boss, Deke Slay­ton (an ex­cel­lent Kyle Chan­dler): “You’re a bunch of boys mak­ing mod­els out of balsa wood! You don’t have ANY­THING un­der con­trol.” Then there’s the dev­as­tat­ing launch­pad test­ing dis­as­ter that killed Arm­strong’s fel­low as­tro­nauts, Gus Gris­som, Roger Chaf­fee and Ed White. Hear­ing the news on the phone, Arm­strong clutches a wine glass so tightly, he breaks it and gashes his hand. But if he has qualms about go­ing for­ward, he doesn’t show it. “Your dad’s go­ing to the moon,” Janet tells their boys. Does that mean he’ll miss the swim meet, one of them asks? Foy’s eyes flare with anger as Janet in­sists — in­deed, com­mands — that Neil sit down and tell the kids he may never come home. She’s right: One of the more chill­ing scenes is a brief look at NASA bosses re­view­ing the speech Nixon will give if the men can’t get off the moon, and what he’ll say to the “soon-to-be wid­ows.” And then, the mis­sion. That fa­mous walk to the launch­pad, the as­tro­nauts wav­ing, the ap­plause. You hold your breath imag­in­ing how Chazelle will pull off the land­ing it­self. With a gran­ite quarry in Ge­or­gia stand­ing in for the moon­scape, it’s as grand and beau­ti­ful as you’d want. And yet it’s not a mere recre­ation of what we’ve seen be­fore. There’s been a dis­tract­ing con­tro­versy over whether Chazelle “ig­nores” the pre­cise mo­ment when as­tro­nauts planted a flag. It’s silly for many rea­sons, but es­pe­cially be­cause this isn’t a movie about sym­bols, or myths. It’s about men — es­pe­cially one man. Af­ter the grandeur of the moon land­ing, an event that still bog­gles the mind, the movie ends on a note of ex­treme quiet: just two peo­ple star­ing at each other. It’s a bold choice, but it feels right. Some­times a movie feels big­gest when it goes small. And this one feels big. Chazelle is only 33. One can only imag­ine how far he’ll travel.

Ryan Gosling in a scene from “First Man”

Claire Foy

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