Glo­ri­ous ‘First Man’ fol­lows Neil Arm­strong (Ryan Gosling) from pilot to fa­ther to moon mis­sion leader

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­ | @RichardERoeper

Damien Chazelle’s glo­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful and al­ter­nately op­er­atic and in­ti­mate moon­mis­sion film “First Man” is a mas­ter class in how to find dra­matic in­ten­sity in a story with one of the most well-known end­ings in the his­tory of hu­man ad­ven­ture.

Spoiler alert! Neil Arm­strong was the first per­son to walk on the moon. This is the story of how he got there, what it took to get him there, and what it felt like once he was there.

From an en­gross­ing, full-throt­tle, dizzy­ingly vis­ceral open­ing se­quence in which Arm­strong pi­lots an X-15 that dances above the Earth’s at­mos­phere be­fore com­ing pre­car­i­ously close to fa­tally spin­ning out of con­trol; through the geeky, pe­riod-piece, pro­ce­dural in­ter­ludes; to the some­times heart­break­ing do­mes­tic se­quences; to the stun­ning and breath­tak­ing cli­mac­tic voy­age to the moon, “First Man” achieves au­then­tic­ity and great­ness.

Put it right up there with “The Right Stuff ” and “Apollo 13” in the ranks of the best movies ever made about NASA.

Chazelle reteams with his “La La Land” lead­ing man Ryan Gosling, whose on­screen per­sona is per­fectly suited to play­ing Arm­strong, who was pas­sion­ately com­mit­ted to the space pro­gram and dearly loved his fam­ily and had no short­age of self-con­fi­dence but was some­thing of a re­luc­tant hero and an elu­sive pub­lic fig­ure.

Sure, Gosling is dash­ing and has movie star charisma and all that — but he has a nat­u­ral affin­ity for play­ing char­ac­ters who in­ter­nal-

ize their feel­ings, who aren’t big on shar­ing, who mea­sure their re­sponses be­fore speak­ing. And that’s Neil Arm­strong. With the ex­cep­tion of a few wellplaced flash­backs, “First Man” trav­els a lin­ear path cov­er­ing the eight-year stretch be­tween 1961 and 1969 when NASA mounted a de­ter­mined, al­most fren­zied cam­paign to over­take the fron­trun­ning So­vi­ets and lit­er­ally plant the Amer­i­can flag on the moon.

Work­ing from a su­perb screen­play by Josh Singer (“The Post,” “Spot­light”), who adapted James Hansen’s best­selling book “First Man: The Life of Neil Arm­strong,” direc­tor Chazelle fre­quently in­vokes a hand-held-cam­era, docu­d­rama style, whether the story is fo­cus­ing on Arm­strong’s home life or the ca­ma­raderie/com­pe­ti­tion among the as­tro­nauts jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion on a rapid pro­gres­sion of Gem­ini and Apollo mis­sions.

Gosling ex­pertly cap­tures Arm­strong’s me­thod­i­cal, straight­for­ward, guarded and some­times in­fu­ri­at­ingly closed-off ap­proach to ev­ery­thing from prob­lem-solv­ing any and all as­pects of get­ting to the moon to deal­ing with the hor­rific deaths of a num­ber of his col­leagues to cop­ing with the loss of the Arm­strongs’ daugh­ter, Karen, who died of a brain tu­mor be­fore reach­ing the age of 3.

Claire Foy’s elec­tric, emo­tion­ally charged per­for­mance as Janet Arm­strong pro­vides a vi­tally im­por­tant dra­matic coun­ter­bal­ance to Gosling’s cool re­serve and gives the movie its heart and soul. While Neil is con­sumed with the mis­sion (whether he’s at work or work­ing at home), it’s Janet who has to keep the fam­ily to­gether.

Eyes blaz­ing, Janet de­mands Neil talk to his young sons be­fore he em­barks on the his­toric but tremen­dously risky mis­sion and let them know this might be the last time they’ll see him — and she’s even more of a force when she calls out NASA su­per­vi­sors for their “We’ve got this un­der con­trol” line of BS.

The par­tial list of bril­liant char­ac­ter ac­tors play­ing key fig­ures from the space race in­cludes Ciaran Hinds as Robert Gil­ruth, the first direc­tor of NASA’s Manned Space­craft Cen­ter; Ja­son Clarke as Ed White; Kyle Chan­dler as Deke Slay­ton; Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin; Shea Whigham as Gus Gris­som, and Lukas Haas as Mike Collins.

They have their own sto­ries, their own am­bi­tions, their own agen­das, their own paths — but their col­lec­tive re­spect and re­gard for Arm­strong the as­tro­naut and Arm­strong the rock-solid man en­hance our em­pa­thy for such a tight-lipped and (for the most part) emo­tion­ally in­ac­ces­si­ble cen­tral char­ac­ter. (At one point late in the story, “First Man” briefly goes un­abashedly sen­ti­men­tal and border­line corny, but it doesn’t come across like a grave ma­nip­u­la­tive of­fense.)

The de­pic­tion of Apollo 11’s as­ton­ish­ing jour­ney to the moon in the sum­mer of 1969 is a tri­umph of film­mak­ing. We ex­pe­ri­ence much of it through the view­point of Arm­strong as he and the crew over­come var­i­ous tech­ni­cal hur­dles and ex­e­cute one tricky ma­neu­ver after an­other, all lead­ing to Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin touch­ing down on the lu­nar sur­face, and Arm­strong tak­ing that one giant leap for mankind.

“First Man” is an ex­cit­ing and fresh take on a story told again and again. It’s a through-and-through salute to the Amer­i­can spirit and in­ge­nu­ity and drive — which makes the pre-re­lease con­tro­versy over the ab­sence of a flag-plant­ing scene even more ridicu­lous.

First of all, we see the Amer­i­can flag on the moon in a cou­ple of wide shots. And prior to that, there’s hardly a short­age of vis­ual ref­er­ences to the flag, in­clud­ing a poignant mo­ment when a young boy raises the Amer­i­can flag to start the day.

What makes the movie so mem­o­rable, so good, so strong, is the un­var­nished, warts-and-all per­spec­tive. It pays fit­ting trib­ute to the awe­some hero­ics of the first man to walk on the moon while re­mind­ing us he was also an or­di­nary fam­ily man whose old­est son re­acted to the news of dad’s big mis­sion by ask­ing, “Does that mean you’re go­ing to miss my swim meet?”


Neil Arm­strong (Ryan Gosling, cen­ter) pre­pares to board with Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll).

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