From tragedy to tri­umph

First Man shows Neil Arm­strong’s trip to moon through lens of daugh­ter’s death

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - ENTERTAINMENT - CHRIS KNIGHT ck­night@post­ twit­­film

Neil Arm­strong was not the first par­ent to lose a child in in­fancy, but that tragic fact un­der­scores much of what takes place in First Man, di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle’s look back al­most 50 years at the events lead­ing up to the first moon land­ing.

Fol­low­ing up on his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chazelle in 2016’s La La Land, Ryan Gosling per­fectly em­bod­ies the tac­i­turn en­gi­neer/ test pilot who was Arm­strong. He could be funny, lov­ing and in his own way emo­tional, but his de­fault mode was in­tro­ver­sion.

So while it may not be fair to Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) to have him make a cal­lous re­mark about the death of an­other as­tro­naut and then de­fend him­self by adding: “I’m just say­ing what you’re think­ing,” it is pure Arm­strong when Gosling replies: “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

In many ways, the two hours and 21 min­utes of First Man skips from catas­tro­phe to near-catas­tro­phe on its way to the ul­ti­mate tri­umph of the moon land­ing. (Though even that is coloured by Arm­strong’s rec­ol­lec­tion of his de­ceased daugh­ter, in a mo­ment that pushes the en­ve­lope of artis­tic li­cence but hits an emo­tion­ally res­o­nant note.)

The film opens with a test flight of the rocket-pow­ered X-15 air­craft in which Arm­strong nar­rowly missed hit­ting some trees on land­ing. We wit­ness the fu­neral of his daugh­ter; a near-dis­as­ter on his first space flight aboard Gemini 8; the Apollo 1 fire that killed three as­tro­nauts; and a crash-land­ing of the lu­nar land­ing re­search ve­hi­cle from which Arm­strong ejected with less than a sec­ond to spare. “We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there,” he tells a flus­tered NASA di­rec­tor (Ciaran Hinds). We even hear, on the eve of the land­ing, a por­tion of a pres­i­den­tial speech, never de­liv­ered, ti­tled In the Event of Moon Dis­as­ter.

This may sound like some­thing of a downer, and it’s also worth not­ing that the score, by Justin Hur­witz (an­other La La Land alum) tends to­ward sobriety when it’s not laps­ing into to­tal si­lence. (Com­pare his low-key mu­sic with the jolly bom­bast that was James Horner’s score for Apollo 13, a story about an ac­ci­dent that al­most claimed the lives of three moon-bound as­tro­nauts.)

But Chazelle more than com­pen­sates with mo­ments of sub­lime beauty, both earth­bound and in space. Fly­ing in the face of cin­e­mato­graphic con­ven­tions, he shoots much of the X-15 footage and all of the Gemini 8 launch from within the craft, so we see only what the pi­lots see. And while this is the dawn of the Space Age, the sound­scape in­side these ve­hi­cles, punc­tu­ated by me­chan­i­cal rat­tles and the groans of stressed me­tal, sound more like that of a Sec­ond World War sub­ma­rine.

The lu­nar footage is su­perb, and the next best thing to be­ing there. Shot with Imax cam­eras, it pushes view­ers out of the tiny lu­nar mod­ule and onto the moon’s si­lent sur­face, undis­turbed for eons. If you’re a fan of ex­trater­res­trial ex­plo­ration, this is your goose­bumps mo­ment.

The sprawl­ing cast in­cludes Christo­pher Ab­bott as Arm­strong ’s Gemini 8 co-pilot; Kyle Chan­dler as as­tro­naut chief Deke Slay­ton; Lukas Haas as Apollo 11’s com­mand mod­ule pilot, Mike Collins; and Ja­son Clarke as the sym­pa­thetic Ed White. They some­times get lost in the fast-mov­ing nar­ra­tive, but harder to miss is Claire Foy as Janet Arm­strong, Neil’s wife.

The star of The Crown (and the up­com­ing Girl in the Spi­der’s Web) plays a mem­ber of that thank­less soror­ity, the as­tro­nauts’ wives club, but she gives Janet the spirit and spit­fire it must have taken to man­age a house­hold and two small boys with a hus­band for whom away-at-work could mean a 350,000-km dis­tance. Her re­fusal to let him leave for the moon with­out a word to his sons — which he han­dles with all the warmth of a press con­fer­ence — sets that scene on fire.

Arm­strong’s re­ac­tions can at times be darkly funny. The screen­play, by Josh Singer (The Post, Spot­light), cap­tures the rhythms of his quo­ta­tions in the bi­og­ra­phy by James R. Hansen on which it’s based. Asked by a re­porter what he plans to take with him to the moon, Arm­strong replied: “If I had a choice, I would take more fuel.” It’s clear Gosling ’s Arm­strong will gen­er­ate much Os­car Buzz.


From left: Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Lukas Haas as Mike Collins and Ryan Gosling as Neil Arm­strong in First Man.

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