Ryan Gosling ex­plores new ter­ri­tory as Neil Arm­strong

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - DINING - By Michael Phillips Chicago Tri­bune

There’s enough go­ing on in di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle’s tense, dis­tinc­tive Neil Arm­strong biopic, “First Man,” to leave the cli­mac­tic, in­spired Apollo 11 moon land­ing se­quence aside for a few para­graphs. So hang in there, please, and we’ll get to the flag.

“First Man” comes from the James R. Hansen bi­og­ra­phy of the same name, ex­plor­ing the far reaches of un­charted ter­ri­tory. The lu­nar mis­sion, yes, of course. But re­ally Chazelle’s film, writ­ten by Josh Singer (“Spot­light,” “The Post”) has its hands and its in­ter­ests full with pry­ing open, tact­fully, the clam that was Arm­strong, a fa­mously tight-lipped aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer and his­tory-maker.

Ryan Gosling is an apt choice for this role, though he has to work hard at seem­ing like a reg­u­lar Joe, even an emo­tion­ally bot­tled-up reg­u­lar Joe. The ac­tor’s air of vaguely im­pe­ri­ous, sphinx-y cool doesn’t eas­ily ac­com­mo­date con­ven­tional, overt hero­ics. This is also why the cast­ing ba­si­cally works (bet­ter over­all, I’d say, than in Chazelle’s pre­vi­ous film, “La La Land”).

Claire Foy makes for a qui­etly fierce and wholly con­vinc­ing Janet Arm­strong, a woman liv­ing with un­cer­tainty and po­ten­tial tragedy ev­ery sec­ond. Chazelle makes that po­ten­tial vividly scary in the open­ing scene, in which Arm­strong’s X-15 flight (one of sev­eral) bounces off Earth’s at­mos­phere, nearly loses con­trol, then lands in the Mo­jave Desert.

The script cov­ers eight years in the Arm­strongs’ lives. The scenes of fam­ily life and the Arm­strongs’ boys and pool­side cook­outs MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for the­matic con­tent in­volv­ing peril, and brief strong lan­guage) Run­ning time: 2:21 Opens: Fri­day es­tab­lish the nor­mal­ity; the scenes of the X-15 flight, the later Gemini mis­sions and fi­nally the 1969 Apollo 11 suc­cess es­tab­lish the stark thrill of the as­tro­nauts’ ac­com­plish­ments.

A few things pre­vent “First Man” from be­ing re­mark­able, I think, in­stead of merely ex­pert. Singer’s script is ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive, no more. Chazelle’s de­ci­sion, with cin­e­matog­ra­pher Li­nus Sand­gren, to go full faux-doc­u­men­tary shaky-cam in the house­hold scenes im­parts a cliched sense of movie ur­gency.

Com­poser Justin Hur­witz has come up with an ex­cel­lent pri­mary theme, rolling and melod­i­cally sus­pense­ful, but the fully or­ches­trated waltz he de­liv­ers for the Gemini 8 flight feels pushy. (It’s a “2001” nod, among other things, to Stan­ley Kubrick’s use of the Strauss “Blue Danube.”)

On the other hand, it takes a writer and a di­rec­tor of se­ri­ous tal­ent to end “First Man” the way Singer and Chazelle do: with a wary re­u­nion of Neil and Janet, in­di­cat­ing that noth­ing in this life is ever easy.

Now, the flag. In the moon land­ing and first­walk pas­sages, which are sub­lime and make “First Man” well worth see­ing, Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) go about their busi­ness while Chazelle and com­pany go about theirs. The vis­ual re­al­iza­tion of what hap­pened on July 20, 1969, is quite stag­ger­ing, and also dra­mat­i­cally ef­fec­tive in its hushed qual­ity. This isn’t a Michael Bay movie. The plant­ing of the Amer­i­can flag on the moon’s sur­face does not get a hammy, over-scored close-up. In­stead we see the flag a cou­ple of times in mid­dledis­tance shots. And there’s a full, nat­u­ral com­ple­ment of flag im­agery through­out the movie.

I’m glad Chazelle’s film of­fers some fresh points of view on its sub­ject; it’s proof he’ll be able to keep his film­mak­ing wits about him, no mat­ter what genre he’s ex­plor­ing. He has made his Apollo 11 movie. And it’s a good one. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.

UNI­VER­SAL PIC­TURES

Ryan Gosling plays Neil Arm­strong in “First Man.”

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