For a review of “First Man,”
Neil Armstrong set foot on the face of the moon on July 20, 1969. It was likened to Columbus discovering the New World, an opening to the heavens, a “giant leap” for mankind.
And yet, nearly 50 years later, it is not exactly a top-ofmind remembrance. The science, engineering and determination required to get him there were amazing. But now it all seems somewhat hohum. Yeah, we got to the moon. And then what?
Damien Chazelle’s new film “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling as the astronaut, reaches back to the early days of the American space program when the watchword was failure. The Soviets were kicking our butts in space, but by God, we were going to beat them to the moon. President Kennedy promised it in 1961.
If you are looking for wallto-wall testosterone-fueled heroics or nail-biting space adventures, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a wellacted character study, this is your film. Gosling is excellent as Armstrong, as is Claire Foy (“The Crown”) as his wife, Janet.
There are some gripping moments in “First Man” — training-gone-wrong, the sweaty claustrophobia of being strapped on top of a rocket, the super-shaky sensation during liftoff. You get the astronauts’ point of view as they reach for the sky, and the clang and clicks of all the metal and technology. But this is mostly a human, Earth-bound saga. Screenwriter Josh Singer adapted the story from the 2005 book by James R. Hansen (who interviewed Armstrong for more than 50 hours).
Gosling portrays Armstrong as a quiet, humble soul, who, despite his success and fame, possessed very little ego. Chazelle and Gosling collaborated on the acclaimed “La La Land” in 2016, and once again it’s a happy marriage between director and star, as Gosling’s performance rises above the less stirring aspects of the script. Gosling conveys Armstrong’s internal angst in highly effective ways.
The great tragedy of Neil and Janet’s marriage was the loss of their daughter, Karen, from a brain tumor, when she was 2 years old. It is the subtext that runs throughout the narrative, and, according to the film, had much more impact on Armstrong than conquering the heavens.
We don’t get to know too many others at NASA. You will learn much more about them in films such as Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff ” and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” The likes of Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Gene Kranz (Ciaran Hinds), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are on hand, but in “First Man,” they serve more as background noise.
For some reason Chazelle decided to make most of the supporting characters nameless and sketchy. It allows us to see the world from Armstrong’s perspective, but we would be much more invested in these characters if we really knew who they were, especially when tragedy strikes.
On the upside, there are some interesting slices of history, with the voices of Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace covering the space race, and a chilling reading of the prepared government statement about the doomed astronauts had the moon mission failed.
Armstrong, who died in 2012, shunned the limelight. He was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, then moved all over the state with his family, settling in his post-NASA years outside of Cincinnati.
According to Hansen’s book, Armstrong was chosen to be the first human on the moon because he epitomized calm and confidence. Despite rumors that his famous, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” line was created by NASA’s PR team, it actually came from the man himself.
Armstrong was humble, quiet and fiercely focused. If nothing else, he would appreciate the dignity and strength wrapped in Gosling’s performance.
“First Man,” a Universal PIctures release, is rated Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements involving peril, and brief strong language. Running time: 141 minutes. ★★★½
“Bad Times at the El Royale”
The setup of “Bad Times at the El Royale” sounds familiar, even cliche: Seven strangers, each with a skeleton in the closet, find themselves thrown together at a hotel that has seen better days, and that itself hides a secret — one that is revealed in the short, wham-bam prologue that sets the stage for this 1969-set film, which is part B-movie sendup, part noirish hybrid of mystery and black comedy, and all original.
The name of its writer and director, Drew Goddard, may not mean anything to some. But anyone who has seen Goddard’s only previous film, the meta-horror movie “The Cabin in the Woods,” or who knows his work as a writer on such projects as “Lost,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the Oscar-nominated adaptation of “The Martian,” will know to expect the unexpected.
Not all of its surprises are pleasant ones, but there is a certain satisfaction in experiencing a yarn that is so obstinately un-anticipatable.
Set in the titular hotel, a Lake Tahoe-area lodge that straddles the Nevada-California line, the action of the film takes place on a night when the front-desk clerk of the normally godforsaken inn (Lewis Pullman) is suddenly overwhelmed by small scramble for rooms. A traveling vacuumcleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), apriest (Jeff Bridges), a lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson) — or four people who claim to be those things — show up at about the same time, lugging more metaphorical baggage than the real kind.
It sounds like the prelude to a joke. And in some ways it is one. With a Tarantinoesque soundtrack of vintage R&B and classic pop-rock tunes playing over much of this soon-to-turn-lurid-and-bloody tale, the film feels (and sounds) at times like a parody of something. But of what, it’s not exactly clear.
“Bad Times” is period-perfect, with gorgeous production design (by Martin Whist) and a moody score (by Michael Giacchino), but it’s also a little too perfect: a 21stcentury wisenheimer’s appropriation — and recapitulation — of an era that appears more vivid and colorful than the original ever was, because it’s a fantasy.
Woven into this fantasy, over a slightly overlong running time, are narrative threads involving the Vietnam War, a Manson-like cult and the civil rights struggle. But Goddard never wields these themes to score difficult sociopolitical points. Rather, he seems more interested in the 1960s as an idea — a goodlooking narrative device — rather than a real and turbulent time. It’s a beautiful picture frame, surrounding a lot of ugliness and violence.
More indelible even than the art direction, however, is the cast, which is headed up by Bridges in the kind of tough-but-tender performance he seems capable of delivering with his hands tied behind his back (and, in fact, his character is bound in the film’s crazy climax, which lurches hither and yon, for better and for worse). Paired off against him is Erivo’s Darlene Sweet, a Reno songstress with the bluesy voice of a honky-tonk angel who is struggling to make it in the racist, sexist world of showbiz. Erivo, a 2016 Tony Award winner for the musical “The Color Purple,” is the film’s breakout star, making her upcoming role in “Widows” even more of a must-see.
Chris Hemsworth, who also starred in Goddard’s “Cabin,” compensates for getting dispatched relatively early in that film by showing up very late in the game here, in a darker role than fans of his “Thor” movies may know what to do with.
At least I didn’t. “Bad Times at the El Royale” certainly goes places you wouldn’t predict, but it’s not always evident why. Like the namesake hotel, which boasts a red line running through its lobby - one side the home state of Tinseltown, the other Sin City “Bad Times at the El Royale” is a schizoid thing: terribly, terribly entertaining, and at times just a wee bit soulless.
“Bad Times at the El Royale,” a Twentieth Century Fox release, is rated R for-strong violence, strong language, some drug elements and brief nudity. Running time: 140 minutes.
Jeff Bridges, left, and Cynthia Erivo star in the Twentieth Century Fox film “Bad Times at the El Royale.”