Arm­strong con­fronts the void

Space race com­pelling de­spite star’s blank­ness

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Mick LaSalle

When we first meet Neil Arm­strong, he’s test-fly­ing a plane high above the Earth — ex­cept it’s more like we’re fly­ing it. Di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle puts his cam­era in­side the craft, and so we see what Arm­strong sees. The en­gines la­bor and roar, and the ra­dio in­forms us that he’s “bounc­ing off the at­mos­phere,” which we know can’t be good. By the time he makes it back on the ground, we’re sure of a cou­ple of things — one, that we’re ex­hausted, and two, that Arm­strong was a re­mark­able pilot. “First Man” tells the story of Arm­strong, the first man to walk on the moon, but it’s an un­usual biopic in that it presents its sub­ject as an enigma and prac­ti­cally a cipher. With­out mak­ing too much of it, Chazelle (“La La Land”) sug­gests that Arm­strong was per­ma­nently dam­aged by the death of his 2year-old daugh­ter, from can­cer, in 1962. The daugh­ter scenes are few and frag-

men­tary, al­most im­pres­sion­is­tic, but the choice of mo­ments — the adorable­ness of the lit­tle girl and the open­ness with which Ryan Gosling, as Arm­strong, looks at her — makes an im­pres­sion. We never see that open­ness again.

So Chazelle gives him­self a chal­lenge, one he can’t fully over­come, to tell the story of a man who was barely there and yet main­tain an au­di­ence’s in­ter­est for 141 min­utes. He makes it yet harder on him­self by di­rect­ing his lead ac­tor into vir­tual blank­ness, so that Gosling goes through most of the movie with his patented look of plain­tive opac­ity. Still, Arm­strong’s story and that of the space pro­gram are so in­her­ently in­ter­est­ing that we’re will­ing to take the jour­ney.

It helps that Chazelle has a fas­ci­nat­ing take on the pro­gram, one that is per­haps closer to the day-to-day re­al­ity than we’ve seen pre­vi­ously in movies. In­stead of a merry band of ex­plor­ers, Chazelle gives us a small group of am­bi­tious men, con­sciously risk­ing their lives. The dread of death un­der­lies so­cial in­ter­ac­tions even be­tween the wives. One gets the sense that be­ing mar­ried to an as­tro­naut was like be­ing mar­ried to a glad­i­a­tor.

And for Janet Arm­strong, it was even worse. Imag­ine be­ing mar­ried to a glad­i­a­tor who won’t com­fort you, or share your anx­i­eties, or help raise the kids, or even talk about what he’s go­ing through, or what he’s think­ing. As Arm­strong’s qui­etly suf­fer­ing wife, Claire Foy be­comes the film’s emo­tional linch­pin. Her life is noth­ing but stress — Neil is al­most killed on three sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions — in­ter­rupted by stretches of ut­ter bore­dom. Through it all, she has to main­tain the smil­ing fa­cade of the per­fect mid-1960s wife.

Janet waits for the same thing the au­di­ence waits for, for Neil to drop the mask and have a hu­man mo­ment. He never does, and that be­gins to seem like an af­fec­ta­tion of the movie: In real-life in­ter­views, Arm­strong seems a lit­tle nerdy, a lit­tle dis­tant, a lit­tle re­served, and even a lit­tle dull, but not quite the zom­bie that Gosling por­trays. But the more we be­come frus­trated with Gosling, the more we con­nect with Foy as Janet, who em­bod­ies our frus­tra­tion and sug­gests a tur­bu­lent, roil­ing in­ner life be­neath the placid sur­face.

Any­way, who cares that “First Man” is like an out­erspace zom­bie story? The drama of the real-life his­tory over­comes the weak­ness of the lead char­ac­ter. The Amer­i­can space pro­gram starts out be­hind the Rus­sians’ and strug­gles to get ahead. There are suc­cesses and hor­rors. Chazelle takes us onto the doomed Apollo 1 cap­sule, for a rou­tine test that turns into a flam­ing holo­caust in a mat­ter of sec­onds. Chazelle’s di­rec­tion is stren­u­ous, some­times too stren­u­ous, but he phones in noth­ing, and there are many imag­i­na­tive and ar­rest­ing shots, such as reflections of the moon’s sur­face on the as­tro­nauts’ hel­mets. And when things get dull, there’s al­ways Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, pre­sented as Arm­strong’s op­po­site — in­tem­per­ate, taste­less and fun to be around.

By the way, there has been some fake con­tro­versy about the Amer­i­can flag not be­ing shown in the lu­nar scene. Ac­tu­ally, it is, but there’s no scene of the as­tro­nauts im­plant­ing the flag, nor should there be. This is not a movie about tri­umph, na­tional or per­sonal. It’s about Arm­strong con­fronting the empti­ness — about his reach­ing the sum­mit and find­ing the same bar­ren vast­ness that he has tried to cul­ti­vate within him­self.

It’s been true since Woodrow Wil­son tried it in 1915, and it re­mains true to­day: Politi­cians (with the ex­cep­tion of Wil­lie Brown) have no busi­ness re­view­ing movies.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Arm­strong in “First Man.”

Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Arm­strong, the as­tro­naut who walked on the moon in 1969, in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.”

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