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Front Page - Friday, October 19, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘First Man’ explores so much more than a walk on the moon

Hollywood has made space travel seem easy. To hop across the galaxy, one simply needs to board the Millennium Falcon and punch the hyperdrive button.

“First Man” reminds us that it’s not that simple. Nearly 50 years ago, it took a monumental scientific, technical and engineering achievement to put men just 240,000 miles away on the moon.

But instead of giving audiences a grandiose, romantic rendering of the mission, “First Man” focuses on the efforts of astronaut Neil Armstrong to hold things together at home as he ushers the world to the moon.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t offer any heart-pounding thrills. On the contrary; it contains several nail-biting sequences of Armstrong piloting test planes or new equipment designed for the moon mission.

“First Man” opens with a pre-Apollo Armstrong wrestling an X-15 rocket plane from the edge of outer space, where he keeps bumping off the atmosphere, down to the Mojave Desert. Director Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) keeps the camera in the cockpit for most of the sequence, choosing to focus on Armstrong and his point of view rather than external shots of the plane.

It’s a harrowing ride. As the plane battles the elements to return to Earth, it seems to barely hold together. Strapped to the pilot’s seat with Armstrong, viewers see jittery, whiplashed images of flashing lights, numeric displays and the sky outside the plane’s windows.

Bone-jarring sound effects complete the assault on the senses. The wind-whipped exterior of the plane screams like a banshee, while the entire craft is rocked by a violent, metallic death rattle. For the duration of the descent, it sounds as though the plane is on the verge of disassembling in midair and leaving a trail of debris stretched across the sky.

Somehow, Armstrong lands the plane and looks no worse for the wear as he clambers out.

There are several similar sequences in the film, with the most intense being the Gemini 8 mission, during which Armstrong becomes the first astronaut to dock with another spacecraft. His craft suffers a critical failure, though, leading to a gripping sequence that makes the X-15 landing look like falling into a bed of cotton.

Chazelle and his crew did interesting work on these scenes. Although the person operating the camera must have suffered from a sore neck after filming them, I somehow had a sense of everything Armstrong was seeing and hearing in the clamoring, blurry cacophony, and how he brought his training and innate abilities to bear on each situation to survive.

Yes, it’s awesome when Iron Man zips across the sky to save the day, but how much more awesome is this story of a real-life human achievement?

Armstrong displays less skill at home, where he struggles to reconcile his responsibilities to his family and his nation. Or should I write “his responsibilities to his family and his desire to pursue his dream?”

There’s never any doubt that Armstrong loves his wife and two sons, but there is a sense that he buries himself in work after the death of his and Janet Armstrong’s 3-year-old daughter from a brain tumor. As he withdraws from his family, his wife performs heroics of her own by keeping everyone together.

Chazelle chose his “La La Land” leading man, Ryan Gosling, to play Armstrong. Gosling, who’s known for his deadpan approach to acting, is perfect in the role of a man who keeps his cool during tense moments in space and guards his emotions when at home.

There’s a sense that Gosling doesn’t stretch himself much in “First Man,” but his performance works.

Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth II on “The Crown”) is much more engaging in her portrayal of Janet. Foy’s intense face perfectly captures the tremors of love, admiration, frustration and anger the woman feels for her husband. And you can almost see flashes of lightning in Janet’s eyes as she unleashes her outrage over the Gemini 8 incident on Deke Slayton, chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office.

“You’re just a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood!” she spits at Slayton. It’s a great line delivered by even greater acting.

Chazelle does subtle but superb work behind the camera. He uses the same claustrophobic approach he employs during the space missions when Armstrong is earthbound, filming Foy and Gosling in tight close-ups using a hand-held camera. In so doing, he draws clever parallels between the most significant parts of Armstrong’s life.

I like how Chazelle, who directed visually expansive song-and-dance sequences for “La La Land,” adapted his approach to the material.

Written by Josh Singer, who based his script on biographer James Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” “First Man” isn’t a flashy, over-the-top crowd pleaser or gooey patriotic pap. But it is a smartly made portrayal of a man who was more than an astronaut, and a portrayal of an astronaut who contributed more than a few immortal words to this nation’s history.

Without Armstrong’s faith in what he and others were doing, and without his bravery in the execution of those plans, we might still be looking at the moon and dreaming.